To append my recent recipe-lacking travel post on Taiwan, this is perhaps THE kingpin recipe, loaded with all the nostalgia and symbolism that you’d expect out of a blog post with “Grandma” in the title. Out of her many signature dishes, zongzi (粽子 / sticky rice dumplings) most epitomise traditional, familial, ceremonial, and festive fare; the Chinese have been making them for centuries and the skill is passed down through the generations.
Traditionally eaten especially during Duanwu Featival (端午节, the fifth day of the fifth Lunar month), they’ve been since spread and popularised via Chinese minorities settling throughout Asia, different names including pya htote in Burma; nom chang in Cambodia; bachang in Laos and Thailand; bakcang in Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia; and machang in the Philippines. Thus, many variations and ingredient combinations have evolved since.
The Taiwanese version involves stuffing stir-fried glutinous rice (油飯, delicious on it’s own) with various fillings, wrapping all that in bamboo husks, and then steaming or boiling to infuse the leaf’s fragrance into the rice. It takes after the savoury zongzi of Southern mainland China as opposed to the sweeter Northern variations, and Grandma made my favourite to take home—stuffed with salted duck egg yolks and shiitake mushroom instead of the chunks of pork fat that tend to attract much unwelcome attention at airport customs borders. Like many Chinese “meatless” dishes, however, it’s not vegetarian in the sense that pork fat and drippings are involved in the recipe steps and components to impart an undeniably irresistible flavour that brings it all back to memories around Grandma’s table.
The all-American vision of cookie-baking with Mom and burger-flipping with Dad was never realised in my household; I went off to college not knowing how to bake a potato, much less having ever engaged in a typically sentimental passing down of family recipes—until this past trip to Taiwan, when I stubbornly made a case for recreating a photograph of almost exactly 20 years ago. I’m rocking my bowl cut and my grandmother beams down as she feeds me a bite of glutinous rice stuffing, the ingredients for zongzi laid out around us on the kitchen floor.
Somewhere along the early end of that 20-year spectrum, I once lost a shoe to the sticky abyss of a rice patty swamp whilst making my way across to town. Until recent years, I never made a connection between our ancestor’s blood-sweat-and-tears farm labour and the way my mother used to make me finish every grain of rice in my bowl, threatening that the almighty thunder god would strike me down otherwise (it sounds ridiculous, but it makes anti-food waste campaigns nowadays seem absolutely weak!)
Grandma slows her car down on our way home from the market, rolls down the window, and shouts to her friend tending to the neighbourhood plot—“What veg is there today?” My eyes widen as the thought runs across my mind: Grandma is living the hipster dream.
Back in London, I can volunteer at every community garden, co-own a hive at the rooftop beekeeping foundation headquarters, get all my organic vegboxes delivered from within a 10 mile radius—and there’s certainly nothing wrong with these things—but it will never be in quite the same uncontrived, unpretentious spirit found here amongst my Grandma’s generation. It’s just second nature to her, an obvious way of living—“sustainable” because it’s sensible, “local” because it tastes freshest, costs the least, and because she is friends with the grower.
Hey, I’d be the last one to say that we shouldn’t be taking a renewed interest in these principles (because it isn’t just trendy—it’s necessary), but it’s easy to get carried away with instagramming heirloom tomatoes and forget that although we may have popularised the “sustainability” buzzword, everything it represents was long in place before we messed it up to begin with. We should not consider ourselves pioneers of the green movement as much as reinvigorated disciples of a long-established way of human living and eating. There’s no place for pretentiousness there, and this realisation made the vegetables on Grandma’s dinner table that evening taste even sweeter.
Zongzi 粽子 (Taiwanese-Style Sticky Rice Dumplings)
Makes about 10
- 500g sticky rice
- 10 salted duck eggs
- 20 dried chinese shiitake mushrooms
- 15g dried miniature shrimp
- 6 cloves garlic, minced
- 60g peanuts (optional)
- dried minced daikon radish
- 2 T light soy sauce
- ½ t sugar
- salt & white pepper, to taste
- 10-15 bamboo leaves
- cotton string, as needed
- sweet chili sauce, to serve
Wash rice thoroughly and rinse 3-4 times. Cover with ample amounts of water and leave to soak overnight.
Separately, soak the dried mushrooms (and peanuts and shrimp, if using) overnight.
The next day, wash bamboo leaves thoroughly until pliable and set aside to keep moist in a bowl.
Peel the salted duck eggs, discarding whites and setting aside the yolks.
Heat oil in wok. Stirfry shrimps with garlic, then add mushrooms and fry till fragrant. Add the peanuts and mix.
Add drained rice and stir constantly to coat each grain in oil. Keep flipping and turning the rice with a wide wooden spoon for 10-15 minutes. Season with soy sauce for dark colouring and sprinkle in a handful of dried daikon. Keep stirring and frying until the rice is cooked through enough to eat on it’s own. Taste and adjust salt/pepper/sugar seasonings as necessary.
For assembling and wrapping the zongzi, it will be much easier to learn by watching the video below or one of the many YouTube demonstrations that may be slightly different, but perfectly helpful anyhow.
For this recipe, each dumpling should have 2 mushrooms and one yolk wrapped up amongst the sticky rice. If you run low on yolks or are wary of cholesterol, cut them in half using the badass string method demonstrated by my grandma in the video.
To finish, steam the zongzi or boil in simmering water for 4 hours.
Untie and unravel to eat immediately with some sweet chilli sauce, but otherwise they can be stored in the refrigerator or freezer to be reheated by steaming or microwaving.