Duanwu, popularly known as Dragon Boat Festival, will be upon us soon. Pauline D Loh reflects on its legends and traditions.
He walked into the river a frustrated and depressed man, enraged by the corruption at court and his helplessness in correcting the situation. Qu Yuan, patriot, poet and exiled minister of the Chu State during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), marked the fall of his country by committing suicide.
Before he died, he had walked among his people, collecting folklores, songs and odes. He also produced some great poetry reflecting his life and turbulent times.
Qu Yuan was much loved by the common folk, and they honored him by creating a festival around the anniversary of his death. They had row-boat contests, and they wrapped rice in bamboo leaves which they threw into the river - presumably so the water creatures would be distracted by the free food, and spare the poet's body.
That was more than 2,000 years ago.
These days, the festivities still commemorate Qu Yuan, and his name comes up again every year as all Chinese celebrate Duanwu on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. It is also the height of summer, and several traditions have evolved around that.
To cool off, young men from both cities and villages would participate in rowing contests, fuelled by the pounding of drums and the cheering of the crowds. The boats would be decorated with pennants and flags, and prows topped by colorful dragon heads - hence the Dragon Boat Festival.
These river races have become international affairs as well, with foreigners participating as enthusiastically as the locals in China, Singapore and many of the Chinatowns abroad.
Another element of the festivity is the bamboo- or reed-leaf wrapped rice dumplings that were originally designed as an offering to the river gods. They now come in many shapes and flavors, and may range from sweet to savory to please different palates - now usually human.
In the south, meat dumplings prevail, with either chicken or pork fillings complemented by chestnuts, mushrooms and a salted egg yolk or two. Often, lentils or beans are added.
There are also the sweet dumplings, eaten most often in the scenic area of Hangzhou and Suzhou, where the delicacy of the snacks reflect the beauty of the scenery.
Further north, the dumplings evolve yet again, with a variety of filling drawn from floral flavors, such as rose and osmanthus to the traditional sweet red bean or sweet mung bean pastes so popular in Beijing snacks.
In our family, Duanwu starts well before the actual date. About a week before, someone in the family will raise the clarion call and we will gather in an appointed kitchen to season, wrap, steam, and catch up on the family gossip.
Wrapping dumplings is a family affair, and it is this collective effort that simplifies the rather complicated culinary process.
My mother often comes around at this time, taking on the multiple roles of head chef and narrator-of-stories as we gather for the annual rice dumpling wrapping session. This would be when she reaches back in time for stories of how her mother used to make dumplings in our old family compound.
My grandmother was an erratic cook when it came to the daily dining table, but she was an excellent occasional chef - turning out festive delicacies with precision and art, a fastidious festival cook who spent three days wrapping hundreds of dumplings that would ultimately be distributed to clan and horde.
The first day would be spent picking through the glutinous rice, which would be soaked in three changes of water. The bamboo leaves would also be soaked in hot water, and then individually scrubbed to remove the dirt that had accumulated on the surface. This is something I still pay great attention to, as the bamboo leaves comes into direct contact with the food.
The second day is spent cutting up the meat and marinating it in spices and sauces, and finally on the third day, the charcoal fires are started in the courtyard and the cauldrons used to cook the dumplings readied.
Traditionally, the dumplings needed to be boiled for at least three to four hours as the glutinous rice needs that long a cooking time to keep for a week or two. This was in the days of erratic or non-existent refrigeration.
I am passing you two recipes from our family repertoire. Gather your family around one day this week and celebrate the bonding with a dumpling wrapping session. You'll find that no matter what the result of your culinary experiments, they will always taste better than any store-bought dumpling, even if they are all perfect pyramids.
Start with these tips from my mother:
Soak the bamboo leaves in hot water and wipe each one with a damp cloth.
Season the meats generously with good quality soy sauce. The long cooking process leaches the salt and dilutes the flavors.
After the dumplings are boiled for the requisite time, hang them up to drip dry. They must be completely dry before you store them away.
Relax, have fun, don't worry. It's all edible, even if they don't look all that good.
Savory rice dumplings
Ingredients (makes 30):
2 kg glutinous rice, washed and soaked
500 g belly pork, cut into chunks
100 g pork fat, cubed
300 g dried chestnuts, soaked
50 g dried prawns, soaked
50 g dried Chinese mushrooms, soaked and sliced
2 whole bulbs garlic, skinned and chopped
2 bundles 10 cm wide bamboo leaves, plus raffia/reeds to tie
15 salted egg yolks (optional), halved
Soy sauce, five-spice powder, salt and pepper to taste
1. Soak and clean bamboo leaves. Trim off hard stems and tips.
2. Soak the dried raffia so they become pliable. Gather into bunches of 10 strings and tie one end with a large knot.
3. Marinate belly pork with good quality soy sauce and five-spice powder, salt and pepper.
4. Divide pork fat cubes into two portions. Marinate half with five-spice powder. Place the other half into a medium hot pan, and start rendering the fat. When you have about two tablespoons oil, add the chopped garlic and stir fry till garlic turns golden. Drain garlic. Set aside.
5. In remaining oil, fry the mushrooms till fragrant. Set aside. Add belly pork and fry in oil with a little garlic added. Add more soy sauce. Drain belly pork pieces and set aside.
6. Keep pan juices. Add more garlic into pan. Add the rice and stir well so that the grains are lightly colored with soy sauce and flavored with garlic. Remove from heat and place the rice in a big pot.
Wrapping the dumplings:
1. Make a fold halfway in the bamboo leaf and bring the two halves together so a cone is created.
2. Hold the leaf by its two edges, add one tablespoon of rice. Add chestnut, mushroom, belly pork, salted egg yolk if using, some dried prawns and a piece of five-spice marinated pork fat. Cover filling with more rice.
3. Cupping the bamboo leaf and shaping it between thumb and forefinger, use your other hand to fold the leaf over the top, pressing down. This is the base of the pyramid.
4. Flip the cone over, and wrap the ends of the leaf around and about the rice cone.
5. Holding the completed cone firmly in one hand, use a raffia string and wrap around the sides, tying it with what I call a fisherman's knot.
6. When you have completed bunches of 10, suspend the dumpling with a long handled wooden spoon over a large pot of boiling water for three to four hours. The dumplings must have enough room to move around in the water so don't try to cramp too many in. Remember to top up with boiling water if the level falls low. It must cover dumplings completely. (Larger dumplings need longer cooking time.)
7. When dumplings are cooked, hang them up to dry off completely before storing them.
Wrapping the dumplings just needs practice. Basically, you are creating a cone in which you place the rice and filling. Even if you do not get a perfect pyramid, don't worry. If you are really hopeless at manipulating the bamboo leaves and tying them up, here's a cheat's solution. Simply place layers of rice and meat filling into small metal or glass bowls and steam them over rapidly boiling water for about an hour. I assure you the little round puddings will taste just as good.
Cantonese mung bean dumplings
Ingredients (makes 30 to 40 dumplings):
2 kg glutinous rice, washed and soaked
500 g pork hock, cut into small pieces
100 g pork fat, cut into small cubes
2 tsp Chinese five-spice powder
100 g dried Chinese chestnuts Salted egg yolk (optional), cut into eighths
500 g split mung beans, cleaned and soaked overnight (or any softened lentil)
Soy sauce, five-spice powder, salt and pepper to taste
2 bundles 10 cm wide bamboo leaves, plus reeds or raffia to tie
1. Drain glutinous rice and place in a colander. Season with plenty of salt.
2. Marinate pork hock cubes with 1 tablespoon light soy sauce, 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce, salt and pepper.
3. Toss pork fat cubes in plenty of Chinese five-spice powder so they are thickly covered.
4. Make a cone with two bamboo leaves and add a spoon of rice. Add a piece of pork, a piece of fat, a chestnut and a spoonful of split mung beans.
5. Cover mixture with more glutinous rice.
6. Fold over bamboo leaf to make a pyramid and secure with a piece of reed or raffia.
7. Tie dumplings into bundles of 10 or 12 and thread onto a wooden spoon or thick chopstick. Hang over a pot of boiling water and cook for at least two hours.
Keep adding boiling water to keep the heat constant. When cooked, hang dumplings up to drip dry. Serve with dipping sauces of soy sauce.
These bean and meat dumplings are not just eaten only at Duanwu. In Hong Kong and Guangzhou, they are breakfast staples that are offered in the little teahouses catering to the working hordes. Often, they are washed down with a bowl of steaming hot white congee, seasoned with nothing more than a pinch of salt.