If we were having coffee … I’d invite you to have the last of my stash of bak chang. I have three types: Nonya, Hokkien and Kee. My favorite is the Kee which is also called crystal chang. It’s delicious with gula melaka and heady with the scent of pandan and bamboo leaves.
What is bak chang?
Bak chang is the Hokkien word for sticky rice dumpling. It is also called zongzi in Mandarin and joong in Cantonese. In the US it’s sometimes called Chinese tamale but that’s just wrong – let’s not refer to it as that. These pyramid shaped, leaf wrapped dumplings show up in Chinese shops and eating houses every year around June. It is a celebration food for the Duanwu festival and Dragon Boat races.
Chinese legend goes that when the beloved scholar Qu Yuan committed suicide by throwing himself in the river, villagers tried to save him by rushing out with their (dragon) boats. When they failed to retrieve him, they threw rice dumplings (chang) into the water to dissuade fishes from eating his body.
Like all Chinese legends this is highly romanticized and thoroughly unbelievable. You only have to make bak chang once to appreciate the time and effort it takes to make these delectable dumplings. No way is anyone going to throw them overboard for fishes to eat.
When I looked at the class schedule on Rosaline Soon’s Grandmothers Recipes website I didn’t know what bak chang was. But Rosaline was offering a half day class in Chang Making and since she is my favorite source for Peranakan dishes, I had to go.
Making chang is labor intensive. It takes a minimum two days to prepare all the ingredients – from washing and soaking the leaf wrappers, preparing and cooking the rice and fillings, to the final arduous task of wrapping the packages and cooking them for hours. In the olden days, Rosaline said that people even had to sort through the uncooked rice to separate the non-glutinous grains from the desirable glutinous ones. In our class we only had to worry about wrapping the dumplings. Our teacher Julia, had prepared everything else ahead of time.
When I say only the wrapping, this understates the complexity of the task. For the uninitiated, wrapping chang is like learning to tie shoelaces when you’re 3 years old without the bunny ears song. You fold this and that, hold it so, fill it up, turn it around, twist and … if you’re Julia … you end up with a perfect pyramid. If you’re me … you end up with a handful of rice.
Over the course of four hours, I tried to wrap six changs, all of which had to rescued and re-wrapped by Julia. I think I may have mastered the art of tying the string. Although sometimes the chang did look a bit strangulated. OK, maybe I only mastered the art of knotting the string.
What makes bak chang different from joong or zongzi? That would be the flavor and the fillings. Bak chang is heavily seasoned with garlic, shallots, ginger, spring onions, coriander, five spices, three types of soya sauce, dried shrimp, pork, mushrooms etc. Nonya chang goes one step further in localizing it. Characteristic of some Peranakan dishes, it is tinted blue with an extract of pea flowers – adding yet another couple hours to the total preparation time.
My favorite is Kee chang. It is made solely with sticky rice but soaked overnight with a mysterious yellow alkaline crystal. The alkaline changes the color to an amber yellow and the rice becomes more gummy and chewy. Unlike the others, Kee chang is a sweet and it is served with gula melaka (palm sugar) syrup, honey or kaya (coconut jam). It is also good with dollops of golden orange marmalade. Nice with coffee but perfect with tea.
Singapore. June 2016