The Rice Dumpling:An Echo of What We Once Were

Jun 08, 2011
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For a long time, the Duan Wu festival was one of few occasions in the year that poor Chinese allowed themselves the luxury of meat.

946 Photo: Caseman

It’s that time of the year once again, when I gorge myself on rice dumplings, or zongzi, as they’re called in Mandarin. Amongst Singapore’s Chinese diaspora, they are known more commonly by the Hokkien dialect name, bak chang.

It’s the 5th day of the 5th Lunar month today, and it’s Duan Wu Jie, which some may also know as the Dragon Boat festival. It’s been celebrated for thousands of years, and in Chinese populations across the globe, celebrating the festival entails one essential aspect – eating. (Actually, that’s the case with all Chinese festivals, it seems.  As you might guess, eating is also a religion with this ethnicity.)

The chang looks innocent enough. It’s a sturdy thing, a lump of meat and aromatic ingredients, ensconced in glutinous rice and boiled. When I was a child, relatives would point to my muffin-top belly fat and say, “Haha, like bak chang like that.” And they’d squeeze my arms. I’m not sure why – but it must be because when bak chang is wrapped up tight, it looks like it’s bursting out of its hemp strings.

But beyond its rough-hewn appearance, unwrapping a steaming hot bak chang is an experience that for me is heaven. There’s the unmistakable fragrance of bamboo leaves, the hopelessly moist glutinous rice, all perfumed with bamboo. You take a fork and break into the dumpling – and Chinese mushroom, chestnut and salted egg join in the aromatic chorus.  

Fascinatingly, the Chinese diaspora across Southeast Asia has taken on regional influences and given chang an erstwhile spin. There’s Nyonya chang of the Peranakan people, for instance – where belly pork is fried with ketumbar (coriander powder), mixed with sugared winter melon and wrapped in pandan (screwpine) leaves. The tropical banana leaf – instead of bamboo – is used for some chang, imparting an entirely different aroma. Its sweet-salty combination is a hit with young children, and adults like myself who never really grow up.

The unmistakable fragrance of bamboo leaves, the hopelessly moist glutinous rice, all perfumed with bamboo

As far as maturity goes, however, my yearly consumption of chang has got me thinking.  And it began with my mother-in-law. As I broke open a Nyonya chang this year, she took a bite of her own and shook her head, unimpressed.

“This Nyonya chang,” she said, “is nothing like what my father used to make.” Descendants of Chinese immigrants leading a hardscrabble life, her family made kueh, or local cakes, to sell on Singapore’s streets. At every Duan Wu festival, they would produce rice dumplings by the hundreds to be sold to Peranakan restaurants. As a child, my husband recalls aunts gathering around the table, wrapping chang after chang, a laborious affair made easier by energetic gossip. He remembers bundles of bamboo leaves, soaked and pliant for wrapping; and the unmistakable aroma of ketumbar.

Today, chang-making has been mostly relegated to franchised affairs, and the increasingly rare, time-honoured family business. While many families used to make their own chang, either for extra income or simply because they had the time, a faster pace of life in this burgeoning city hardly allows for it. It’s left to the elderly aunts, or the grandmothers to present home-made bundles to the family. And generations-tested recipes will pass on with them.

We simply do not have time for chang anymore – except to eat it, of course.

And then there’s the shape of the chang, pointing to our agrarian roots. I read somewhere that its tetrahedral shape was meant to resemble the horns of a cow – the animal being a sacred symbol in China’s ancient agrarian culture. This worship coincided with the period when rice seedlings were being planted – and dragons, mythical beings that could control rain, somehow came into the picture too. (So it wasn’t just about a dramatic poet then.) The chang was therefore borne out of a time when the gods – or belief in gods – controlled everything.

But while my diaspora in this growing port-city had few opportunities to farm, one aspect that may have kept the chang alive in my culture was simply, meat. A colleague once told me about the chicken he had growing up – but an annual occasion, during Chinese New Year. Rice dumplings, with their filling of minced pork, were likewise a luxury. Up till the 1970s – before industrialization meant prosperity – the Duan Wu festival was one of few occasions in the year that poor Southeast Asian Chinese allowed themselves meat. It was so to speak, a time to forget poverty.

We simply do not have time for chang anymore – except to eat it, of course.

So it’s a little ironic for me when I see luxury hotel restaurants showcasing “exquisite”, “indulgent” rice dumplings. In other words, instead of the humble chestnut and mushroom, the fillings are scallop and abalone – favoured luxury foods for Chinese. I haven’t tried them, and I’m not sure I want to. Rice dumplings are for me, a little like the ratatouille that featured in Pixar’s film of the same name. Nothing exotic. Ingredients that don’t cost. A sophisticated dish requiring skill, to be sure, but also one that points us to our mother’s home kitchen, to the memories of the smell of bamboo leaves, of aunts wrapping chang by the dozen, and children tying them with raffia and reed strings.

And if you go further back, a time when meat was precious, and the seeds that bought forth a harvest, even more so.

It’s an echo of what we once were – a poor people, living in desperation but surviving by hope. All that, in a rice dumpling. Who would have thought.


Simone ErasmusWhen she isn't writing children's storybooks or expounding on food, Simone can be found in the kitchen, concocting fiery curries or bravely attempting layers of genoise. She has written for The Business Times Singapore, and also contributed to research in arts and culture across the region at the National University of Singapore. She is currently writing a series of books for preschoolers, to be published soon to the iPhone and iPad.

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