It’s Duan-Wu Day (端午節) on Saturday, where it’s absolutely mandatory to eat wonderful rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves, called zong-zi (粽子). They are popular food that’s available all year round in Taiwan, and particularly important when it comes Duan-Wu Day, which is also the day of Dragon Boat Races.
Zong-zi are made by filling bamboo parcels with sticky rice and meat. There are also vegetarian ones and sweet versions available. When they are cooking, the house is filled with the wonderful smell of bamboo. When you open them, they steam with a cocktail of aromas from the bamboo leaves, rice, shallots, peanuts, mushroom, pork, and whatever else they are made with. I indulge in inhaling the steam when I open them because it is just so wonderful! No wonder they are many people’s favourite food! (I know several people who had declared this!)
I wasn’t sure about posting the recipe to begin with, because it is a bit involved. You are probably not going to commit to this unless you’ve tasted zong-zi, love them, and can’t buy them easier than making them yourself… But then maybe this recipe will help a few who can’t buy them easily but miss them. If you have never tried them, please do try to find them in a Chinese shop and try them out!
There are many recipes for zong-zi. Every region makes them differently. Even close-by villages would have different preferences. And every family would make the fillings a bit different too! In the north of Taiwan, people typically cook the rice before wrapping them in bamboo then steam them. In the south, rice is seasoned but not fully cooked before wrapping, then zong-zi are boiled in the leaves for an hour to cook through. My family is from the south, so that’s the way I like them. I never used to make them until the last lady who makes them the way I like moved away. After a year of being disappointed with what I can buy, I finally committed to making them myself. And since I started making them, I decided they are worth every bit of the effort! Also practice really does make perfect!
The way I’m showing you is a southern Taiwanese recipe. I like having the rice boiled in bamboo leaves, because the final zong-zi have a stronger aroma from the leaves, which I absolutely adore. One ingredient I use, taro, is not typical but I love them. Hey, since I’m making them, I can fill them with whatever I want! (I was told some Malaysian Chinese use taro too.) More typical substitutes would be water chestnut or salted duck egg yolk. All the fillings are typically cooked before being wrapped with sticky rice.
Here are the ingredients I used to make the fillings for roughly 20 zong-zi: (you can substitute with whatever you like.)
- 750g pork belly or other cuts
- 300g Taiwanese or Vietnamese taro, fresh or frozen (they have a distinct taro aroma)
- 200g firm (dried) tofu (豆干 dou-gan)
- 10 dried Chinese mushrooms (pick ones rich in a woody aroma, each roughly 3-4cm in diameter)
The dried mushrooms are first soaked in water until soft, then cut in half and pan fried in a little vegetable oil until fragrant. Then follow the instruction for stewed pork here and stew everything together for an hour. I recommend stewing a total of 2 Kg of ingredients so you can have more than you need and make a dinner out of the stew as well. Or else you’ll need to scale back the ingredients for the pork stew recipe. You only want to stew for an hour without the meat getting to the falling apart stage so you can cut all the fillings into small pieces once cooled. Then you can cook the rest further for a separate dinner if you like. I do the stew a few days before I actually wrap them in zong-zi. Be extra gentle with the taro and stew them in large pieces (peeled and cut in half is good) because they mash very easily. You can also deep fried them before stewing so they’ll hold their shape but I didn’t bother.
To make roughly 20 zong-zi, you’ll need:
- 40 bamboo leaves
- strings to tie zong-zi up
- 1 Kg sticky rice
- 350g raw peanuts in their skins
- 1/2 cup of fried shallots (These need to have been deep fried until crispy. They are available in most Chinese shops.)
- The above stewed ingredients and its broth. If there is hardened lard on the top once cold, skim it off and reserve it.
Ingredients for making zong-zi: bamboo leaves, stewed pork belly, stewed Chinese mushrooms and firm tofu, and taro.
Follow these steps:
- If you can only buy dried bamboo leaves, soak them in hot/warm water until soft. If your bamboo leaves come with grass strings, soak these too to soften them.
- Wash the peanuts then cover with water. There should be at least 5cm of water above the peanuts. Soak for 4 hours or overnight. Alternatively, simmer for 1 hour.
- Wash the rice then cover with water. Have at least 5cm of water above the rice. Soak for 1-2 hours.
- Once the leaves are soft, rub them gently to wash them. Fresh ones should be washed with warm water too.
- If you had skimmed off hardened lard from the top of the cold stew, heat 3 tablespoons in a frying pan, else just use vegetable oil. Once the oil is hot, put in the fried shallots and fry until fragrant, for 2-3 minutes on medium heat without burning.
- Add the drained rice and peanuts and stir to coat in oil and shallots.
- Add 1 cup of stew broth to the rice and stir until absorbed.
- Use your finger and give the rice mix a wee poke and lick to taste if the seasoning is right. It should taste just a hint of salt, like a light soup, at this stage. Add more soy sauce if you think it needs a little more. Stir for the rice to absorb the soy sauce.
- When all the liquid is absorbed by the rice, it should start to get just a little bit sticky. There should be no liquid left at the bottom of the pan. Take the rice off heat.
- To wrap up zong-zi, please watch this video I made. It is simply too hard to just explain with words. The video is only 2 minutes long.
- Once all the zong-zi are wrapped, put them into big pots so the pots are no more than 80% full. You may need to do them in batches if you don’t have that many pots big enough.
- Fill the pots 80% full of hot water and boil zong-zi for an hour on medium high heat.
Once they are cool enough to unwrap, you can enjoy them straight out of the bamboo leaves as they are, or with a little sweet thickened soy sauce drizzled over.
The leftovers should be kept wrapped in plastic in the fridge for up to a week, or frozen for up to 3 months. To reheat, steam them in the bamboo leaves for 30 minutes from the fridge or defrosted. Defrosting would take 6-8 hours in the fridge. Alternatively, unwrap them and microwave with a cover for 4 minutes on medium.