Chinese festivals usually have interesting stories behind them. In less than a month from now, on June 23 (the 5th day of the 5th month in the lunar calendar), to be exact, many Chinese will be celebrating the "Dumplings Festival" — as what is known locally here. In many parts of the world, and in China, particularly, it's better known as the "Dragon Boat Festival" and "Duanwu (Double 5th) Festival". There are several ancient stories about the origin of this festival but the most popular one revolves around commemorating the death of Qu Yuan, a famous poet from the ancient state of Chu of the Zhou Dynasty. Back in 278 BC, Qu Yuan, a great patriotic hero, was devastated when the neighbouring state of Qin conquered the state of Chu. His grief was so great that he committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River on the 5th day of the 5th month in the lunar calendar. According to legend, the local people then threw packets of rice, wrapped in bamboo leaves into the river for 2 reasons: to feed Qu Yuan in his afterlife and also to prevent the fish from eating his body.
Photo taken by Quay Po Cooks
So, there you have it… the popular story behind the celebration of the Dumplings Festival. I like how we being Malaysians, just call it simply "Dumplings Festival" because the dumplings are really the essence of the festival. Yes, we celebrate food at every opportunity. When I was a kid growing up in Ipoh, my mother would make these rice dumplings every year and that's something I always looked forward to. Her dumplings were somewhat elongated in shape and really huge! One such dumpling would be more than enough for my dinner, back then. The funny thing is that I never learned how to wrap these dumplings from my mother… instead, I learned it from my mother-in-law. Ever since I acquired the necessary skills to wrap these, I have been making them every year for family and friends.
In the last few years, I have seen so many "innovations" in the fillings and rice used for these dumplings. The most traditional rice used is of course glutinuous rice but with the current health trends, I have seen dumplings made with unpolished rice, red rice, brown rice, multigrain rice and even basmati rice. I still think glutinuous rice yields the best results, both in terms of flavor and texture (forget about being healthy!). A tip to note is that if you want perfectly glossy sticky succulent dumplings, be sure to spend some time carefully picking out the non-glutinuous grains in your packet of glutinuous rice. It is next to impossible to get 100% glutinuous rice grains here, so do the manual picking, if you are picky about this.
Just like the rice, shops and restaurants have been trying to outdo each other in "innovating" the types of fillings for the dumplings. It is not uncommon now to come across super-luxe versions with abalones, oysters and scallops! There is really no limit to the ingredients and the more you put in, the larger the dumpling becomes, naturally. A giant dumpling can easily feed a small family.
I'm pretty much a traditionalist when it comes to fillings. The basic ingredients that I stuff my dumplings with are chestnuts, dried shrimps, mushrooms, salted eggyolks, mungbeans and pork. I like adding in a slice of Chinese sausage too… this is something my mother always put in her dumplings. The sausage gives it a certain waxy smokey sweetness which blends very well with glutinuous rice. Chestnuts and mungbeans provide a nutty bulk to the dumpling and I love the rich texture of softened chestnuts. Black-eyed peas are also used but I prefer the smaller split mungbeans for their smoother and finer texture. Don't omit the dried shrimps. These morsels are essential for that bite of briny tastiness that's associated with dried seafood. Dried oysters do the trick, too, if you prefer a more extravagant touch. Pork is the preferred meat for dumplings, I would say and ideally, the belly cut should be used. The layered fats in pork belly are perfect in flavouring the dumplings and giving them that glistening oily sheen. A dumpling is never complete without some heady lardy aroma in it! That is why, for me personally, any other meat just will not do…. yes, it must be pork!
Photos taken by Quay Po Cooks
Besides bamboo leaves, other substitutes that can be used to wrap the dumplings are lotus leaves, banana leaves, maize leaves and even pandan leaves. I prefer bamboo leaves — they impart such a distinct aroma to the dumplings. The dried bamboo leaves we get here are mostly from China and much preparatory work is needed before they can be used. They need to be cleaned, rinsed, boiled and soaked… a repeated process that requires time and patience. What about the strings to tie up the dumplings? Many commercially available bakchangs are tied with raffia strings due to the cost and convenience factors. I never use any strings other than the raw organic hemp strings for three good reasons: the excellent knot-tying factor, the strings are bio-degradable and for its traditional appeal. You need to execute a delicate balance in tightness when tying up the dumpling — do it too tightly and the dumpling may burst open during boiling (rice expands as it cooks) and if it's too loose, there is a risk that the rice and ingredients will spill out during the boiling process.
Back in the old days, my mother used to boil the dumplings for 3 hours before they can be eaten. If you have a pressure cooker, use it. You will save lots of time and gas/electricity. You just need to boil them in a pressure cooker for 40 minutes only and you get dumplings with the perfect texture! This is one aspect of modern cooking technology that is extremely useful, and I am more than happy to accede to this, despite being the traditionalist that I am.