[ Equipment: steamer or large pot for boiling. For more information about the terminology in this recipe, see Low Temperature Baking: A Journey of 3 Paths ].
The Chinese Dragon Boat Festival takes place on June 16 this year. They don’t race dragon boats in the US, but people do celebrate by eating zong-zi (also written zhongzi and called jung in Cantonese), rice dumplings with assorted fillings, wrapped in bamboo leaves, that are boiled or steamed. In Chinatown markets, bakeries and from street vendors, zong-zi are sold year-round. Because the dumplings are wrapped, they can be held and eaten as a meal on the run (don’t forget the soy sauce packets). My favorite way to eat them is in bowl with an assortment of chopped vegetables.
Although supermarkets in the US dedicate a few shelves to Asian foods, two basic components of zong-zi are still rare: bamboo leaves and glutinous rice. Asian specialty markets stock them and esoteric ingredients for the filling, but I decided to make American-style zong-zi. That is, I would make them only from ingredients that were found locally.
Instead of bamboo leaves, I used dried Mexican tamale corn husks. Banana leaves would have been great as wrappers (being large and green), but I didn’t find any locally. Tamale corn husks are between a half and a third as long as the average bamboo leaf. Printed on the bag of medium grain rice (discussed next), the recommended serving per person is 1/4 cup of uncooked rice. Happily, one large corn husk will wrap that amount of rice plus a few heaping spoonfuls of filling. Smaller husks can be joined to make one large wrapper or even a super-sized wrapper.
In place of the glutinous rice, I substituted a medium grain rice (Hinode brand Silver Pearl). Because the dumplings in this recipe are boiled, the individual rice grains flow into each other and merge into a cake, with a texture very much like a glutinous rice dumpling. I have read of zong-zi made with a long grain rice, so the lack of speciality rices should not be a deterrent from making zong-zi. Sushi rice might have been a better substitute for glutinous rice. Both are short grain, sticky rices, although a couple of online sources insisted that glutinous rice is stickier than sushi rice. I didn’t look for the sushi rice because I discovered a bag of medium grain rice hiding at the bottom of one of my food bins.
Zong-zi can have a variety of fillings, from meats to sweet bean pastes. My dumplings were stuffed with a savory filling made of vegetables (mushrooms, green onions and bamboo shoots) and a meat or meat alternative. Traditionally, the mushrooms would be reconstituted dried Chinese or shitake-type mushrooms. I substituted white button mushrooms that had been steam cooked for 5 minutes and roughly chopped. The bamboo shoots bring in a crunch, scent and presence of bamboo, as a reminder of the missing bamboo leaves. Chopped water chestnuts would also add crunch. The meat component can be cooked chicken or pork or a Chinese sausage or an equivalent. The “meat” in the pictures below is actually slices of vegetarian riblet, each one about the size of a mini sausage link. To bind everything together, I mixed in a few spoonfuls of prepared hoisin sauce. Hoisin sauce is sweet and tangy. For a more savory taste, oyster sauce or a thick stir-fry sauce would be good binding sauces as well.
The shape of a zong-zi can be the simple rectangular package or the famous pyramidal or tetrahedron forms. Because the corn husks are so small, it was much easier to wrap the rectangular shape. The tying technique shown below is efficient and traditional, but the dumplings can be tied any way that holds the husk flaps down.
Zong-zi can be steamed or boiled. However, unless the rice is pre-cooked, steaming may not evenly cook the rice inside the dumplings. Thus, for steamed zong-zi, pre-cook the rice first by steaming it for 30 minutes in a dish filled with water to cover the rice. Dumplings stuffed with uncooked rice will expand during boiling and could burst through the wrapping, but dumplings containing pre-cooked rice are more stable because the rice is already plumped.
This starter recipe makes only 2 dumplings. It’s far more convenient to assemble and cook a large batch of zong-zi at a time. Double, quadruple or otherwise multiply the quantity of ingredients as desired. For the Dragon Boat Festival, home cooks may devote an entire day to preparing different varieties of zong-zi, hung all around the kitchen to dry. Large batches of zong-zi freeze well, and quickly reheat in the microwave.
Makes 2 zong-zi dumplings
- 250 calories per dumpling (varies with filling)
- Oven temperature: boiled or steamed
- Dried Mexican tamale corn husks (or dried bamboo leaves)
- 1/2 cup medium grain white rice (or glutinous rice or sticky short-grain rice)
- 1/4 cup roughly chopped white mushrooms (or shitake mushrooms)
- 1 tablespoon sliced green onion
- 1-1/2 tablespoon julienned bamboo shoots (or chopped water chestnuts)
- 2 teaspoons hoisin sauce (or stir-fry sauce, oyster sauce or other thick dipping sauce – see text)
- 1 to 2 teaspoons soy sauce (see text)
- 1/8 teaspoon chili powder
- 2 mini sausage links (or equal amount of cooked meat or meat alternative about 3 inches long)
- 2 three-foot lengths of cotton kitchen twine
1. Soak rice in water for 3 or 4 hours or overnight. Drain.
Raw rice is for boiled dumplings. For steamed dumplings, the rice should be pre-cooked (see text above).
2. Soak corn husks in warm water for about an hour. Put in more husks than actually needed, in case some of them have splits, which are difficult to see when the husks are in dried form. The husks should be very pliable after soaking or they will be hard to fold.
3. In a small bowl, mix vegetables. Drain off any excess water. Add chili powder and hoisin sauce. Add soy sauce to taste, but not so much that the mixture turns runny. In a second small bowl, put the mini sausages or meat alternatives.
4. Place husk on flat surface or over a small baking cup. Husks measuring about 6 inches wide at the top and 9 inches long or larger are the easiest to wrap.
Two small husks (less than 6 inches wide) can be overlapped top to bottom to form a rectangle and hold one dumpling.
5. Spread two tablespoons of rice on the husk starting about 2 to 3 inches from the top and in an area about 2-1/2 x 3-1/2 inches.
6. Spoon 2 teaspoons of the vegetable mix over the rice. Put a sausage link (or other meat or meat alternative) over the vegetables.
7. Spoon 2 more teaspoons of the vegetable mix around the sausage or to cover it. Spoon 2 tablespoons of rice over the filling.
8. Fold sides of husk closed to cover the filling.
9. Fold the bottom flap over against the dumpling.
10. Fold the top flap over against the dumpling, overlapping the bottom flap. Secure the top flap with a loop of cotton twine tied in a half knot.
11. Place more loops of twine and half knots along the dumpling to secure both flaps and bring string around the bottom of the dumpling and back up over the top. The tension should be sufficient to hold the dumpling together but allow for some expansion. If the dumpling is tied too tightly, the rice could split the corn husk when cooked.
15. If needed, wrap one more loop at the top of the dumpling. Then tie the string ends together.
16. For boiled dumplings, bring large pot of water to boil and drop dumplings into the water (two dumplings will fit in a 2-3 quart saucepan) and boil on medium heat for 2 hours. For steamed dumplings, put dumplings in steamer and steam for 1-1/2 hours.
17. Remove dumplings and cool.
18. Serve by removing the string and unwrapping the husk or leaves. Sprinkle with soy sauce.
19. Refrigerate or freeze extra dumplings for later.