My father was a man who passionately pursued his interests. A professor of Child Psychology at UC Berkeley in the 1960’s, he remained a staunch conservative during the Free Speech/Anti-War movement. He obsessively followed the stock market. He loved to throw big parties in our home and did so frequently. He daily studied and sang Peking Opera. He was a collector of classical Chinese paintings and calligraphy. But if you asked him what he loves to do, he would answer: “Go fish.”
Daddy LOVED to go fishing. When we were young, he brought us to nearly every lake, stream, reservoir, and pond within a few hours drive of San Francisco. I recall his favorite fishing spots: Clear Lake (not clear), and Lake Berryessa (no berries). We had enough fishing equipment in our basement to open a small tackle store. Each of three daughters had two fishing rods: one for fresh water (closed reel) and one for salt water (open reel). We also each had our own tackle box; mine was green. Dad would stay up into the wee hours of the morning poring over his lures and carefully selecting the hooks, sinkers, bobbers, and bait for the upcoming day’s fishing trip. Mom made roast beef sandwiches: leftover slices of cold roast beef on Kilpatrick’s white sandwich bread with mayo. We caught bluegills and crappie, large-mouth bass and catfish, and occasionally, the prized rainbow trout. For us kids, Guppies, tadpoles, mosquito bites, and sunburn were the evidence of a successful day of fishing.
I was reminded of fishing with my father when I read about the origin of that holy grail of dumplings, Zongzi. Something about an ancient beloved Chinese poet who drowned himself, and people threw packets of rice into the river to prevent the fish from consuming his body. Grim, I know. Why is it that all origin stories carry such a heavy dose of morbidity?
Zongzi are delectable packets of sticky rice with a morsel of tender, savory pork hiding in the center, wrapped in bamboo leaf and secured with string. They are not to be confused with Nuo Mi Ji, or Sticky Rice in Lotus Leaf—where the contents are all pre-cooked before wrapping (see my “Not Quite Elven Fare” post from April 2014 ). With Zongzi, the rice and fillings are uncooked, and require prolonged cooking after wrapping.
My dad liked Zongzi a lot. I LOVE Zongzi. My Auntie used to make them, and periodically she would bring some over and put them in our freezer. When I was young I didn’t think about how they were made, they just magically appeared, like so many other things in life provided by competent, caring adults. However, unlike her pot stickers and won ton, I never helped her–or even once saw her make these. It is true, that making Zongzi has been near the TOP OF MY LIST of dumplings to make for this (intermittent and highly unreliable) blog for several years. While I like to blame my tremendous inertia and delay on this lack of formative childhood experience, it was in fact my great trepidation of wrapping the darn things.
Well, it’s time to fish or cut bait.
I decided this needed to be a group effort. I recruited Big Guns: my cousins Jane and Frances (daughters of the aforementioned Auntie), my son-in-law’s mother Jean, and my sister Lisa.
Zongzi Special Ops Forces. I’m on the right.
We decided to make both Shanghai style (what my Auntie made), and Cantonese style Zongzi. Shanghai style has rice seasoned with soy sauce so that the rice is brown in color, with only pork in the filling. Cantonese style has rice seasoned with salt, so the rice stays light in color, and multiple goodies in the filling in addition to pork.
The recipes we used are from:
Zongzi—Shanghai Style. https://thewoksoflife.com/sticky-rice-dumpling-shanghai-pork-zongzi/
Zongzi—Chinese Sticky Rice Dumpling (Cantonese style). http://yireservation.com/recipes/zongzi-chinese-sticky-rice-dumpling/.
I will not repeat the recipes here as they are so well represented on their sites.
Instead, here is my commentary:
I did the math so that we had ingredients to make around 50 each of the Shanghai style and Cantonese style.
You need three bamboo leaves for each zongzi.
We wanted to make 100 zongzi, so I needed #300 leaves.
I couldn’t tell how many were in a pack, so I opened one in Marina Market and stood there and started counting. There are #100 leaves in each pack, $2.99 per pack, and I bought 3 packets of bamboo leaves.
I needed to soak, clean, and boil the leaves. This turned out to be more time consuming and tedious than I anticipated.
To soak the leaves, I filled my hotel pan with water and put all the leaf packets in and weighted them down with some plates. 2 hours later I checked them, and I’m glad I did because the water had not penetrated between the leaves—they’re naturally somewhat water repellant and stuck together, and the middle of the leaf packets was completely dry.
So I separated the leaves–ALL 300—then washed them (as recommended in several other recipes and youtube videos), then boiled them in several batches for a few minutes. This took forever. I then submerged them in the hotel pan again and let them soak overnight. In the morning we cut off an inch or two from the stem end—you need to remove enough of the stiff stem so the leaf is pliable. We had to cut them all twice, having not removed enough the first time.
The rice: I washed fifteen pounds of Koda Farms Sweet (glutinous, sticky) Rice a few times and covered with water to soak 2 hours before our start time. No need to soak the rice overnight.
The pork: I purchased one 5 pound pack of pork shoulder and one 4.5 pound pack of pork belly from Costco. (Costco sells pork belly? WHO NEEDS FIVE POUNDS OF PORK BELLY IF YOU’RE NOT MAKING 100 ZONGZI?) I cut both the pork belly and the pork shoulder into 1 x 2 inch strips, and kept the belly and shoulder separate. I tripled the Shanghai Zongzi marinade recipe, omitted the 5 spice powder (mine was three years expired), and omitted the water. I then mixed half the marinade with each type of pork the night before.
For the Cantonese zongzi we added mung beans, dried shrimp, peanuts, Chinese sausage (Lap Cheung), shitake mushrooms, and Salted egg yolks, cut in half.
Between the five of us, we have over two centuries (!) of cooking experience, yet none of us had made Zongzi before. So, we did what any Chinese-American home cook of a certain generation would do: We watched youtube videos. What could possibly go wrong?
These two videos were the easiest for me to understand and follow:
Shanghai style wrapping:
In the first video, the wrapping begins at 1:15 minutes if you want to skip ahead.
Cantonese style wrapping:
Armed with our newfound knowledge, we sat down and started to wrap.
Wrapping was not difficult and not easy, but it was comical.
In my hands, the Cantonese style of wrapping produced tiny Lilliputian tetrahedral Zongzi so I abandoned it, desiring nice, plump, non-diet sized zongzi, and moved on to the Shanghai style wrap. I put one piece of pork belly and one piece of pork shoulder in each zongzi.
Observations on 5 experienced Chinese cooks wrapping zongzi for the first time:
- There was definitely a learning curve with many do-overs and broken zongzi.
- After wrapping about twenty, I finally got the hang of it and learned to fold down/close the leaves at a right angle to the base, to get the desired pyramid shape.
- They did not become more beautiful with time.
- Mine seemed too small; I think I overlapped the leaves too much, giving me less real estate in the ‘boat’ where the filling goes
- There is no need to tie them tightly nor loosely, as they did not expand with cooking.
- There was more than one moment when I felt like I was on a prison labor line.
- None of us curse.
In the end, everyone came up with Her Own Method. This is how they looked before cooking:
Initially I envisioned it would take us two hours to wrap them, and we would cook them in big pots on the stove. FOUR hours later we finally had them all wrapped, so the early ones went in the pressure cooker, and I cooked them on ‘high’ for one hour. You can also cook these on the stovetop; recipes I looked at vary between 90 minutes and 5 hours. I would try 2.5 hours and check to see if it’s done.
This is how they looked after cooking:
I took a bite. You know that scene in “Ratatouille” where the food critic takes One Bite, and is straightaway transported back to his fondest comforting food moment from childhood? Yeah, like that. It tasted PERFECT, just like I remembered. The seasoning was right on (thanks, thewoksoflife.com!). The rice was sticky and soft-chewy with bamboo-leaf fragrance. And the fatty pork belly had transformed into a silky, melt-in-your-mouth experience.
We made 135 Zongzi in all; enough for everyone to take home and share with family. Cooked Zongzi should be frozen, for surely you cannot eat them all in one sitting, and you will want to pull one out on a rainy day and be transported back to your childhood. Simply place cooked Zongzi in a ziplock bag and toss in the freezer.
To eat frozen zongzi: Place one zongzi on a plate in the microwave and use the ‘auto-defrost’ feature. Once defrosted, I zapped it on high for 90 seconds. Cut string, remove leaves, and enjoy!
We definitely plan to make these again, and it should go faster next time, now that we are oh so experienced.
I’m going to stash some in my niece’s freezer.