Author & Photographer: Shyn Ru Looi
At the end of spring quarter, I received a few pictures from my aunt who was back home in Malaysia. She told me she had made a fresh batch of bak chang for the Dragon Boat Festival and froze some for when I returned. I couldn’t be more excited. If you’ve never heard of bak chang, they are essentially savory Chinese rice dumplings filled with various ingredients that are made during the Dragon Boat Festival. The making of bak chang is tied to a long history of myths, traditions and stories. I won’t go into the details of the traditions surrounding it since that would probably take up an entire blog post on its own, but since I’m writing a piece or two for the Bite blog this summer, I decided to share a slice of home with the Bite community.
Having eaten this dish almost every year leading up to the year that I went abroad to study, I took the ease of obtaining this dish for granted. When I finally went home for the summer, I asked my aunt if she could show me how to make bak chang from scratch. She was delighted. As I watched her prepare the ingredients, I asked her how she got into making such a tedious and complex dish. Was there someone who imparted his or her skills to her? Sure enough, she enthusiastically told me that back when she had just gotten married, she learned how to make bak chang from an elderly lady. I have no idea who this lady is--even after asking a few clarifying questions-- but let’s just call her Granny for now. My aunt started off by helping Granny assemble the bak chang. She would layer the leaves on top of each other, fill them up with rice and the various ingredients, and tie the leaves up. After repeating this process many times, she perfected the wrapping of bak chang. She pointed out that this part of making the bak chang was the most important as if the bak chang was not wrapped and tied properly, the rice and fillings would ooze out of the leaves as they cooked. Eventually, when her daughters grew more accustomed to bak chang and started requesting it, my aunt learned how to prepare all the ingredients from scratch. Since then, every year when the festival rolls around, all of her daughters and grandchildren gather in her home to help her make bak chang, establishing it as a family tradition.
What makes bak chang an incredibly meaningful dish for her is that it creates an opportunity for her family to get together. Her daughters help assemble the bak chang while the grandchildren run around in the backyard playing tag. Because of the tedious nature of the dish and the sheer amount of labor required to make the bak chang, it gives her family a reason to gather together. If my family happens to be in town, we also join in. The entire evening winds down and all of us settle around the table with piping hot bak chang and Chinese tea to wash it all down. I chose to share this recipe with the Bite blog, not just because I love and appreciate the taste, textures, and smells of a bak chang, but also because the process of making bak chang is synonymous to love, joy and family for my aunt, and this notion has certainly found its way to my heart.
Granted that this recipe is rather complex, rest assured that you’ll be duly rewarded with scrumptious umami-flavored goodness once you finish putting it together. Most of the ingredients can be found at your local Asian mart, so gear up, hit the store, and join me in this attempt!
Makes approximately 20-30 bak changs
● 500g pork belly, chopped into 2 cm pieces
● 1 kg glutinous rice
● 300g of dried shrimp
● 300g black eyed peas
● 300g split mung beans
● 30 pieces of dried small shiitake mushrooms (if large, halve them)
● 15 salted eggs
● 20 shallots
For Pork belly marinade:
● 1 tbsp light soy sauce
● 1 tsp oil
● 1 tsp five spice powder
● 1 tbsp dark soy sauce
● 1 tsp white pepper
● ½ tsp salt
For Rice marinade:
● 5 tbsp dark soya sauce
● 1 tbsp light soya sauce
● 1 tbsp oil
● 1 tbsp white pepper
● 60 bamboo leaves (2 per bak chang)
● cooking string/hemp leaves/natural-fiber string
1. Submerge the bamboo leaves in a large bowl filled with cold water. Make sure the entire bamboo leaf is soaked.
2. Soak the glutinous rice in a pot of cold water.
3. Mix together all the ingredients for the pork marinade. Soak the pork belly pieces in the marinade and leave overnight in the fridge to make sure meat is well-marinated.
4. Soak the shiitake mushrooms in a bowl of water. Depending on the size of the mushrooms, you can choose to halve them.
Prepping the ingredients:
5. Crack open the salted eggs and separate the egg whites and yolks. Cut the yolks into halves, or if preferred, the entire yolk can be used as is.
6. Rinse and steam the split mung beans until cooked through, usually about 15 minutes.
7. Soak the dried shrimp in a bowl of hot water for 5-10 minutes. Drain.
8. Prep the shallots by peeling and finely dicing them. A food processor would also speed up the process.
Cooking the ingredients:
9. Heat 1 tbsp of oil in a large pan and fry the dried shrimps until they become fragrant, about 2-3 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
10. In the same pan, fry the shiitake mushrooms until they are slightly browned. Add a pinch of salt if desired. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
11. Fry the pork belly chunks until they are lightly browned. Do not fully cook the pork belly; aim to only sear them briefly. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.
12. Fry the black eyed peas for about 5 minutes until they are fragrant. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
13. Fry the shallots until they become fragrant. Add the glutinous rice, and continue frying for 1 minute. Add all rice marinade ingredients. Remove from the heat and add in the black eyed peas, making sure to mix well.
Wrapping the bak chang:
15. Drain the water from the bamboo leaves. Pat the leaves dry with a cloth or paper towel. They do not need to be completely dry.
16. Choose two leaves, and place them in opposite directions (the tail end of one lining up with the top end of the other). Discard leaves with holes in them, as they will cause water to seep into the bak chang during the cooking process.*
17. Form leaves into a cone.
18. Fill the cone with 2 tbsp of glutinous rice.
19. Add the rest of the ingredients: one piece of pork belly, one/two mushrooms, 1/2 tsp dried shrimps, 1 tsp split mung beans and an egg yolk.
20. Top with 1 ½ tbsp of glutinous rice.
21. Fold the leaves around the pouch, and secure with your choice of string.
22. Repeat with remaining leaves and ingredients until everything is used up.
Cooking the bak chang:
23. Boil water in a large pot. When the water comes to a boil, dip the bak chang into a pot of cold water and immediately after, gently lower the bak chang into the pot of boiling water. Make sure the entire bak chang is submerged in water. Cover the pot with a lid, and cook on medium heat for 3 hours.
24. After 3 hours, unwrap one bak chang and check if it is cooked through.
25. Once the bak chang are cooked, remove from the pot and place in a colander. Hang them up once cooled as this will also help any excess water to drip away.
*If there is a hard part of the stem at the top of the leave, make sure to trim it off.
Note: Uneaten bak changs can be stored in the fridge for 3-5 days, and in the freezer for up to 2 months. To heat up, steam the bak chang for 5-10 minutes.
Recipe courtesy of my aunt, Yee Mooi Quay