Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Taiwanese peanut tamales

Taiwan has an absolutely fabulous range of foods, as you’ve probably already figured out from my endless ravings on the subject. Really, though, the culinary creativity of just about every corner of China found a home on this island and then blossomed.

Case in point: Chinese tamales.

Also known as zòngzĭ 粽子, you are able to enjoy an immense variety in Taiwan, including the enormous sweet bean paste or savory pork ones from Hunan, delicately hued amber tamales that probably hale from the Hakka regions, sticky rice paste ones that also lay claim to Hakka ancestry, and lovely Shanghainese tamales with sweet bean centers.

But the list goes on and on, and we’ll most likely be enjoying more recipes each summer as Dragon Boat Festival rolls around again.

Today’s recipe is simple, and so I won’t keep you in suspense for long, since I really want you to try it as soon as you can. The ingredients are absolutely minimal, but they combine to form one of my favorite types of tamale, since it can be eaten sweet or savory, hot or chilled, with toppings or as is, and are beloved by everyone who tastes them.

Honestly, these should be part of your regular repertoire all year around.

Taiwanese peanut tamales
Táiwānshì huāshēng zòng  
Makes 16 tamales

2 cups (400 g) round sticky rice (try brown sticky rice, if you can find it)
16 large dried bamboo leaves (zòngyè
粽葉), plus a few extra just in case
1 cup (150 g) raw peeled peanuts
Lots of cotton kitchen string

Boiling water

Peanut sugar (optional):
½ cup (75 g) toasted shelled peanuts
Yup, that's it
3 tablespoons (or more) sugar of any type
½ teaspoon sea salt

or some plain old dark brown sugar

1. Start this recipe at least 8 hours before you want to serve the tamales. Pick over the rice for any foreign matter or stones, rinse it twice, and then soak the rice and peanuts together for at least an hour and up to overnight with enough cool water to cover it by at least 2 inches. Use your fingernail to test the rice and peanuts to ensure they’re ready: your fingernail should be able to split them easily.

2. An hour or so before you want to start wrapping the tamales, drain the rice and peanuts in a strainer over the sink and then clean and soak the bamboo leaves as directed in this recipe for Hakka tamales. Trim off the stem ends of the leaves and then cover the cleaned leaves with a moist towel.

3. If you have a slow stove, take a moment to set up about a gallon of water in a 2 gallon (8 L) pot on your stove over high heat so that it has comes to a boil while you are busy wrapping the tamales. 

5. Fold a leaf as directed in the Hakka tamale recipe with the shiny side on the inside and a slight fold at the bottom to keep the rice from squirreling out. Use a Chinese soupspoon to place 2 scoops of the rice-peanut mixture into the cone. Fold the leaf ends over the cone, allow about a half inch of slack in the fold (see the illustration and description in the previous post). Gently tie it up with 2 or 3 simple loops around the center and tie it off, keeping one end long so that you can tie 4 to 6 of the tamales together.

A personal source of happiness
6. When all of the tamales have been filled and tied, lower them gently into the boiling water, cover the pot, and boil them for about 5 minutes to set their shape. Then, remove the cover, lower the heat to a simmer, and cook the tamales for about 90 minutes; add more boiling water if needed to completely submerge the tamales, and check them at 15 minute intervals just to make sure they don't need a bit more water.

7. Remove the tamales from the boiling water and drain. Eat them right away or cool down and store. They can be sprinkled with brown sugar, which is how many people like them. To make the optional peanut sugar, finely crush the peanuts and mix with the sugar and salt; adjust the seasoning as you like. You can then sprinkle them with this for a double peanut whammy, if you are so inclined. Children and children-at-heart will love you for it.


  1. Happy 忠孝節! I admit, I didn't even realise it was today until a colleague sent me a greeting. I should go get some 粽子 to celebrate - I should also try and see if I can find the Nyonya 粽子 recipe I found a while back, and send it to you. I haven't tried making it, but I've tasted some made by a friend's mother and they are to diiiie for. They used candied winter melon along with pork belly and shitake mushrooms!

    1. Thanks! And to you and yours, too! I would love that recipe for Nyonya zongzi. I love those rich combinations of savory and sweet... wow.

  2. Here you go, Carolyn! I think you'd love this one - my mother's not fond of it, but I like 'em myself (though in smaaaaaall doses, they can be super stodgy). Some people dye the rice blue with pea flowers, but I've seen just as many undyed ones and they still taste fantastic.


    1. These look amazing. I rather like stodgy zongzi, so I really want to try these. I've never seen pea flowers used in Chinese tamales. Do they have any flavor? Are they really from peas? What other uses do they have?

    2. Yes, they really *are* pea flowers, but a very specific type - they're known as butterfly pea/Asian pigeonwings, among other things, but their botanical name is Clitoria Ternatea and they are the most beautiful blue colour imaginable. I don't believe there's actually a taste to the flowers, but it's been a while; they have to be soaked and the water is used to colour the rice pale blue. It's really amazing!

      I think that this is a tradition specific to Nyonya culture, as far as zongzi go - since it's a hybrid of Chinese and Malay traditions which grew into a very specific culture of its own, the Malay practice of using pea flowers to tint rice blue for specific dishes and desserts (nasi kerabu being one of those dishes) carried over into their zongzi as well. Mind you, not *all* Nyonya tint their zongzi; I've eaten many that have just plain mahogany-brown rice like normal zongzi. But there are some, like this lady, who do, and it's really quite special to look at!

    3. Here's a recipe that shows the blue colouring on the rice! This lady teaches you how to get the blue water as well, from the flowers:


  3. Love the form of your zongzi! Their shape is Northern but you tie them Southern style. Is your husband's family originally from the North?

    1. My mother-in-law was from Tianjin, and my father-in-law was Cantonese Hakka. So, there's a great mixture of north and south in the family. But I learned to wrap the zongzi in Taiwan, so even more influences make their way into these recipes!