I was born in San Francisco in the 1970s, and grew up eating many traditional Chinese dishes. About 10 years ago, I decided I wanted to discover the history of many of these traditional dishes and learn how to make them. In 2003, I was browsing through the local Barnes & Noble and came across a book called: “The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen: Classic Family Recipes for Celebration and Healing” by Grace Young. Like most people, I sat down in one of the comfy couches to browse through it.
Page after page, “Wisdom” contained recipe after recipe of old-time Cantonese dishes with which I had grown up. I was infatuated with this cookbook, so much so that I e-mailed the author to thank her for documenting these stories and recipes. Ms. Young even sent me an autographed bookcard to adhere into the front cover of my book.
I’ve been making many of the dishes from this cookbook for years now (e.g., turkey congee, sticky rice stuffing, oyster-vegetable lettuce wraps, Buddha’s Delight), but there was one recipe in there that had daunted me: 咸粽 (Cantonese: haam joong; Mandarin: zongzi). Many Chinese-Americans also call them Chinese tamales. Each year, a few months after Chinese New Year, our family would receive joong from the older generation of family friends. I would look forward to this time every year because it meant I would have joong to eat. But, after a week or so, all the joong would be eaten up, and I would have to wait until next year for more. So, I finally decided this weekend would be the weekend where I conquered joong, and then I could eat it any time I wanted.
Joong is a wonderful bundle of surprises. Its core is 糯米 or sweet rice (also known as glutinous rice). Surrounded by the rice inside is a savory combination of dry-tasting mung beans (绿豆), salty pork belly (五花腩), shiny Chinese sausage (臘腸) and shittake mushroom (冬菇). But in the very center of it is the pièce de résistance–the bright orangey-yellow solid egg yolk from a salted duck egg (咸鸭蛋黃). As a kid, I would dig into the joong just to find the egg yolk. It has a chalky texture, and is decidedly salty, but oh how good it is! And, all of this is wrapped inside bamboo leaves (竹葉).
There’s a history to joong which you can read all about on the Internet. Long story short, back in the feudal days of China, a famous poet tried to warn his king about a war he foresaw with a neighboring state. Everyone ignored him, and when war came and his king’s empire was lost, he committed suicide by jumping into the river. As the story goes, mourners wrapped rice in bamboo leaves (to prevent the fishes from eating the rice) and threw it into the same river so he could have nourishment. So today, the tradition continues (except we don’t thrown the joong into the river)!
The recipe itself seems pretty easy. Take a whole bunch of ingredients, surround it with uncooked rice, and wrap it in bamboo leaves. Boil. Easier said than done though. The recipe itself is a bear (which is why I was so intimidated by it that it’s taken me 7 years after finding the recipe in “Wisdom” to even contemplate trying to make them). There’s lots of pre-prep work that has to be done. The bamboo leaves have to be soaked overnight to make them more pliable for wrapping. The pork belly has to be marinated in salt overnight for flavor. You have to plan ahead if you want to make joong!
After taking care of the pre-prep work last night after we got home from dinner (remind me one of these days to tell you how wonderful 230 Forest Avenue in Laguna is), I went to bed, excited that joong-day was coming. Unfortunately, my excitement was overwhelming because I woke up at 4 a.m., unable to sleep any further.
The prep work began around 5 a.m. I had to boil the bamboo leaves in salted water to kill off the bacteria that lives on the leaves. I had to soak the shittake mushrooms, then slice them up. I had to soak the sweet rice in water so the rice would puff up and absorb the water. I had to rinse the mung beans and slice the sausage, and cut pieces of 4-foot long string (used to tie up the joong when wrapped). I had to remove the yolks from the salted duck eggs, and slice them in half. Then, after the bamboo leaves cooled, I had individually scrub each leaf to make sure all bacteria was removed. Finally, I had to stir in some oil and salt into the drained rice.
Meanwhile, I researched the joong-wrapping technique on YouTube (what a great resource!). I felt confident it wasn’t as hard as I had been led to believe. So, around 6:45 a.m., the assembly of the joong began. The tricky part is wrapping it all up without having everything scatter everywhere. The first couple times, it was an epic fail. But after I got the hang of it, my joong started looking like they were supposed to. I ended up with 13 of them. Then, I boiled them. The recipe said to boil them for 5 hours, but after a couple hours, my joong were already well-cooked.
A couple things I’ve learned from this:
1) Stir-fry the sliced shittake mushrooms in some soy sauce, oyster sauce, sugar and some mirin first. That will add more flavor to the mushrooms.
2) Be careful with salt. The pork belly is rubbed with salt, and the rice mixture has salt, too. I’d go a little lighter on the salt for the pork belly.
3) I’d add a little more mung beans, and a little less rice into each joong next time. There was a bit too much rice.
4) For more flavor, I think I’ll add some shredded conpoy (dried scallops) in the joong next time, too.
So, based on my trial and error this morning, my receipe for making authentic joong (based in part on the “Wisdom” recipe) is as follows:
Ingredients (makes 12-14):
1 package bamboo leaves (each package contains 100 to 150 leaves)
1 slab of pork belly (about 2 pounds), cut into 2 inch x 1/2 inch size pieces
2-1/2 pounds sweet rice
7 ounces yellow mung beans (get the sliced ones and not the whole green ones)
8 salted duck eggs (preferably raw, but cooked ones are acceptable)
3 Chinese sausages
6 shittake mushrooms
4 to 6 conpoy (dried scallops)
1/4 cup plus 3 t salt (if using kosher salt, double the amount)
2/3 cup vegetable or canola oil
1 T soy sauce
2 t oyster sauce
1 T mirin (or sherry if you don’t have any mirin)
1 t sugar
1. The night before, remove 40 to 42 bamboo leaves from the package. Save the rest for next time. Trim the hard stem stub from each bamboo leaf and soak the bamboo leaves in a pot of very hot water. Cover and leave on the counter. Mix 3/4 t salt with the pork bellies. Cover and refrigerate. Soak the shittake mushrooms in about 2 to 3 cups of water. Cover and refrigerate. Soak the conpoy in a cup of water. Cover and refrigerate.
2. The next morning, rinse the bamboo leaves in cold water. Place bamboo leaves in a large pot of water with 1/4 cup salt. Bring to boil. Cover, and boil for 30 minutes. Remove from heat, and let the pot cool for 30 minutes. Then, drain pot, and rinse bamboo leaves in cold water. Scrub each bamboo leaf (front and back) with a scrub brush under cold water. (This step is really important as you are removing the bacteria which resides on each leaf.) Make sure to keep the bamboo leaves moist during this entire assembly.
3. While bamboo leaves are boiling and cooling, rinse the sweet rice about three times with cold water. Cover the sweet rice with cold water, and let the rice soak for an hour.
4. Slice each large shittake mushroom into three pieces. (If you have small shittake mushrooms, then slice in half instead.) Shred conpoy. Add a little bit of vegetable oil to a skillet over medium heat. When oil shimmers, add shittake mushrooms and conpoy to skillet. Add soy sauce, oyster sauce, mirin and sugar to skillet, and stir fry for a few minutes. Place shittake mushrooms and conpoy into a small bowl.
5. Cut each sausage in half lengthwise. Then, slice each sausage piece into thirds.
6. Cut 12 to 14 4-feet long pieces of kitchen twine.
7. Drain the rice well. Stir in the oil and 2-1/4 t salt.
8. Now the assembly. Take one bamboo leaf and hold the stem end in your left hand, making sure the long-side of the bamboo leaf is parallel to the ground. Make sure the hard center rib of the bamboo leaf is not facing you. Orient a second bamboo leaf in the same manner, placing it behind the first bamboo leaf, about an inch higher than the first. With each hand holding each end of the bamboo leaves (remember, the long-side of the bamboo leaves should be parallel to the ground), rotate your left hand 90° counter-clockwise, while simultaneously rotating your right hand 90° clockwise. Join your two hands together (and their respective ends of the bamboo leaves), and you should have created a conical-like pocket.
9. Holding the bamboo leaves pocket in one hand, place 1/3 cup of the rice in the bottom of the pocket. Make a small well in the center, and add 1 T of mung beans and 1 egg yolk. Place 1 mushroom slice, some conpoy, 1 sausage slice and 1 piece of pork belly around the egg yolk. Add 1 T of mung beans to the top. Cover with 1 to 2 T of rice.
10. Add a third bamboo leaf (in the same orientation as the first two) behind the other bamboo leaves, about an inch higher. Now here’s the hard part. Fold the parts of the bamboo leaves on the right side of the pocket down over the center. Then, fold the parts of the bamboo leaves on the left side of the pocket down over the center. If you’ve done it right, you should have created a package with only an opening directly facing you. Carefully rotate the joong 90° upwards so the opening is now facing the top. Lightly tap the joong onto the counter to compact the ingredients inside. Now fold the top half of the bamboo leaves over (orienting the fold slightly to the right–it will fold in that direction naturally) to seal the entire joong. Wrap the kitchen twine horizontally around the joong several times, then vertically several times, finally tying the string into a knot. Be careful not to wrap the string too tightly around the joong as the rice will need to expand, but not too loose lest the joong come apart.
11. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. The pot will need to be large enough to fit all of the joong. (If you don’t have a pot big enough, you can boil the joong in two separate pots.) Place the joong carefully into the boiling water, making sure the water covers all of the joong. Return the water to a boil, and cover the pot. Check the water level every half an hour, adding boiling water to the pot as needed. Boil for 2-1/2 hours. Halfway through, using tongs, rotate the joong from the bottom to the top, and vice versa.
12. Using tongs, remove the joong into a collander to drain. To serve, carefully snip the strings and unwrap the bamboo leaves. The recipe in “Wisdom” says the joong will keep in the refrigerator for about 10 days. If you want to store it longer, seal the cooled joong in a airtight Ziploc, and freeze for about 4 months. To reheat, boil in water for about 45 minutes, or microwave for about 2 to 3 minutes. (Boiling is better.)
And there you have it, my joong recipe. That concludes my cooking project for this weekend. I’d rate it a success, albeit with some modifications necessary for next time. I’m no longer afraid of making joong, and I plan on making some more in time for Tuen Ng (the Chinese festival commemorating that dead poet) in late June/early July. Now I’m off to make use the remainder of that pork belly for dinner. I’m braising it in some dark soy sauce, light soy sauce, rock sugar and mirin. It comes out really tender and flavorful!