About two years ago two neighbors of ours separately stopped us in the corridor and wondered if we had a good time smoking pot in our apartment the night before. I was initially perplexed and rather indignant by the insinuation. Then I realized the odor they smelled through our door was in fact from boiling zongzi, which I was preparing for the annual Duanwu Festival, commonly called the Dragon Boat Festival in the West. The concoction of bamboo leaves, meat and spices has an odor very similar to marijuana smoke, or so I’ve been told.
Traditionally made for the Duanwu Festival these rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves resemble tamales. Although they are typically associated with the festival they are now so popular they can be found in markets and restaurants year round. There are many different variations including savory type with pork belly and chestnut, or sweet kind with jujubes and red beans.
One specific variety known as alkaline zongzi seems rather curious to most American. This Zongzi is made with glutinous rice that’s been blended with alkaline water, or kansui as it is known in Cantonese. Before industrialization of the food production in China, kansui was made at home by filtering water through ashes produced from burning hardwood. The water dissolves the alkaline compounds such as potassium carbonate and sodium carbonate as it passes through the ashes. Wood from lychee and longan trees purportedly to contain the highest amount of these salts and are preferred in traditional communities.
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Kansui is now available in just about every Chinese market as bottled solution of potassium carbonate and sodium bi-carbonate. This solution has many different uses including noodle making and bread making. In noodle making kansui increases the alkalinity of the dough making it firmer. In Chinese steamed-bread making kansui neutralizes the acidity from the fermentation of the sour dough to produce sweet tasting bread. In making zongzi, kansui turns the flavor slightly astringent and changes the color lihgt yellow.
Alkaline zongzi is often cooked with just the rice then served unwrapped with sugar on the side, but I prefer making it stuffed with red bean paste in the center. The recipe below is for this stuffed version and it can be served unwrapped plain at room temperature without sugar.
This year the Duanwu Festival falls on June 12 so it is about time for me to start making Zongzi. Wrapping each individual dumpling meticulously and cooking them for hours makes this project a labor of love. This year I am planning to make extra dumplings to share with the neighbors, lest they should assume we’ve been indulging in illegal substance again.
Alkaline Zongzi with Red Bean Paste Filling (豆沙鹼水棕)
- 3 cups glutinous rice about 1 1/2 pounds
- 3 tablespoon alkaline water kansui or 鹼水
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 12 ounces red bean paste
- 28 dried bamboo leaves
- 21 feet butcher’s twine
Soak the glutinous rice in three cups of water over night. Drain the rice thoroughly after soaking then add the salt and alkaline water. Mix well and set aside.
Boil 2 quarts of water in a wok and rehydrate the dried bamboo leaves. Cut 7 pieces of butcher’s twine about four feet each in length. Collect the strands together and fold them into half. Tie a knot at the fold with a one-inch loop. Hang the loop on a sturdy hook on a wall or door. Wrap each Zongzi by following the wrapping instructions below.
Heat 4 quarts of water in an 8-quart stockpot and bring to a boil. Lower all the zongzi into the pot and cook for about two and a half hours. Remove the zongzi from the water and let cool to room temperature before serving.
Trim each bamboo leaf at the stem end by cutting off about 1/2 inch of the leaf. Overlap two bamboo leaves topside up with ends facing in the opposite directions. Fold the leaves at about one-third length and twist the bottom around to form a cone.
Put about one tablespoon of glutinous rice in the cone. Put one tablespoon red bean paste on top of the rice. Add more rice over the filling.
Fold the longer end of the bamboo leaves over the cone. Fold the leaves along the vein in the middle. Bend the excess folded leaves to one side and completely wrap the dumpling. Use a butcher twine from the bundle to tie the dumpling tightly.