In my workplace cafeteria I remember a large hand printed sign posted above the racks of clean water glasses: “Do NOT use for HOT WATER!”
The company had just relocated to a new site in Toronto and the food services group was getting used to the strange habits of a two thousand odd tech team. One of the more perplexing issues was the amount of breakage due to people dispensing hot water directly into cold beverage glasses.
With some curiosity, I had watched employees (all Chinese) by-pass the stoneware coffee mugs in favor of the more fragile, non-tempered water glasses. They filled them up with boiling hot water and ignoring scorched finger tips transported them back to the lunch tables. Odd, I thought but cafeteria services being the least of my worries at the time, I forgot about it.
Years later when I was stationed in Beijing, I was charmed at the many little courtesies afforded to visitors in business meetings. Almost always I would be seated around a meeting table where paper cups of hot water were already set in place. My first couple sips were surprises and after the startled responses to my request for cold water, I learnt to appreciate the gesture and ignore the paper cups.
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.
If we were having coffee we’d be looking at the gift of mangosteens from my hubby’s tennis friend. It’s an old, familiar Chinese tradition, to bring gifts of fruit when visiting. When I was young, my Aunties used to do it and depending on whether they were shop keepers or gardeners, I’d have little treats of imported grapes or homegrown mangoes. It’s a cordiality of friendship that I’d almost forgotten while living in Canada.
Outside of birthdays and Christmas, Westerners do not typically exchange gifts. In fact, a business colleague once told me how uncomfortable he was when his Chinese employee kept giving him little gifts or souvenirs from her vacations abroad. I remember feeling similarly dismayed in Beijing, when direct reports gave me elaborate gifts for Chinese New Year and Harvest Moon Festival. US corporate policy promptly stopped the business habit. I hear that in newly reformed China, it is now common business practise to refuse gifts lest they be interpreted as bribes.
Maybe though, it’s not gift giving that’s different in the west. Maybe it’s the habit of home visits. I remember the front door of my childhood home always being open. A shut wrought-iron grill door might have secured passage from strangers, but the main door was always open. Family and friends would drop by unannounced, their arrival heralded only by the excited barking of the yard dog.
In Canada where temperatures fluctuate between plus and minus 30 degrees, the hermetically sealed doors are always shut, locked and barred against the weather. I remember being surprised in Singapore, when I climbed the stairs to my condo and saw the neighbor’s door flung wide open. Their’s was a mirror image to my unit and for one brief moment I thought I had been robbed … except that the thieves had stolen my furniture and replaced it with different pieces.
It seems like it’s more of a Western tradition to socialize outside of the home. We meet in coffee houses and restaurants where food is paid for and bills are routinely split. Dinner at home is reserved for close friends and family. Invitation times are strictly prescribed and it’s bad form to arrive late. For these occasions, we bring house gifts – wine, flowers and if you’re so inclined, fresh baked goodies.
Once I was invited to a Singaporean friend’s home which she shared with her elderly parents. I’d baked a loaf of freshly made carrot cake. Home baking is relatively rare in Singapore (many of the homes are not even equipped with ovens) and I thought an afternoon treat of coffee and cake would be nice. My friend’s mother had eagerly anticipated the carrot cake but was puzzled when she opened the package. It was brown, had raisins and was sweet? It turns out that Singaporean carrot cake is a savory, stir fried dish made with steamed white turnip cake. There is no carrot in carrot cake.
Which brings us back to the mangosteen. This is an exotic looking fruit. Deep purple with chartreuse colored sepals, it is rock hard when green, brittle brown when ripe. It looks like a fruit from my childhood, a Jamaican star apple but that fruit is found only the regions around Central and South America. The Jamaican star-apple is soft, fleshy and creamy with a mushy purple pulp surrounding a mild tasting core.
When I break the mangosteen apart, I see that the purple color deepens into a dark red flesh surrounding a white core. The similarity to the Jamaican star apple ends here. The reddish purple interior is dry and woody and the translucent fruit lifts out in to single five piece glob. The fruit itself is sweet and mildly acidic. It tastes like a large skinned grape.
And very much like carrot cake … there is not a hint of mango in mangosteen.