Monday, June 6, 2011

Celebrate Dragon Boat Festival with Hakka tamales

I can never remember Dragon Boat Festival until it is upon me, and this year was no different. So, since today is the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, Happy Dragon Boat Festival!

The reason I can't remember this day must be because there's no clues around here like there were in Taiwan, where for weeks leading up to the Big Event, ladies would perch in public markets and outside their shops on folding chairs while assembling their own version of the Chinese tamale. 

Rice tamales are part of the Dragon Boat celebration, and in the month or so before this summer festival – one of the three most important holidays in the Chinese year along with the Lunar New Year and the Moon Festival – shops in Taiwan (and most other places in China, for that matter) are full of an enormous variety of these lusciously filled wrappers. (Here's a video I made for Zester Daily on how to wrap a tamale.)

Chinese tamales
I was a bit confused when I first ran into the Chinese version of the tamale.  As a California native, I had devoured many a Mexican version from an early age and have always been extraordinarily happy whenever I’ve found a good tamale on my plate. But these… these were totally different.  

First, the wrappers were bamboo leaves rather than corn husks.  Second, the corn masa I was used to had been supplanted by sticky rice. And finally, the seasonings were totally different – there were soy sauce and ginger in there instead of cumin and chilies, and the sweet ones were filled with sweet bean paste rather than raisins.  But curiosity and hunger quickly overcame any misgivings I might have had, and by the time the first wrappers had been licked clean, I had decided that these were worth some serious attention. 

Each region in China seems to have its own take on the tamale, which is generally called a zongzi.  Huzhou cooks make elongated tamales with either long pieces of seasoned pork loin or a thick baton of sweet red bean paste.  My husband and late father-in-law have always been partial to the translucent, amber tamales called jianzong, or alkaline tamales, that often don’t have any filling and but rather have been cooked with baking soda for hours, which changes the rice into a sticky confection that is absolutely fantastic when served chilled in a pool of honey.   

The wondrous Hakka tamale
My favorite, though, has always been this savory Hakka-style tamale. Instead of rice grains, these are made out of rice dough, much like Chinese rice balls or Ningbo rice cakes or Japanese mochi.  Inside each of these zongzi are boiled peanuts, bits of soy-infused mushrooms, fried shallots, pressed beancurd, lots of seasonings, and a precious salted duck egg yolk, which supplies the perfect balance to the other textures and flavors. 

The first one I ever had was made by the mother of a coworker at the National Museum of History, an incredible place where I learned so much over five wonderful years while disguised as a translator.  It so happened that one summer this coworker gave me one of these little guys out of the heavy plastic bag she was carrying; I unwrapped it, took a bite, looked up delightedly, and asked for the recipe.  Ha, she said smugly, shaking her head.  Then I turned on the charm.  Refused once again.  Wheedling was attempted, but I was told with a smirk that this was a family secret, so there. 

Coat the rice dough ball with oil
Thus began my hunt for the perfect Hakkanese tamale.  Fortunately for me, this wasn’t much of a family secret after all, and a much friendlier Hakkanese grandma soon not only told me how to make them, but even sat me down and showed me how, and now I offer the recipe to you.   

So there.

Hakka-style tamales  
Kejia banzong  客家粄  
Makes about 24
24 large dried bamboo leaves (zongye), plus a couple extra in case some of the leaves split
Very hot water for soaking
24 long pieces (12 inches or more) of dried grass ties (zongxian), or kitchen string
5 tablespoons dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon five spice powder
Wrap the dough around the filling
7 shiitake mushrooms, fresh or dried (soak dried mushrooms overnight in cool water until plump)
3 gluten batons (mianjin 麵筋 )
12 dried Chinese toon leaves (see note below), optional
1 dried soy skin (fupi 腐皮)
6 pieces pressed bean curd (doufugan 豆腐乾)
4 teaspoons white sesame seeds
2 cups peanut oil
½ cup boiled peanuts (see note below)
cup fried shallots (youcongsu 油蔥酥 , homemade or storebought)
Rice dough:
18 ounces glutinous rice flour (Mochiko sweet rice flour is a good brand)
3 ounces all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon sea salt
Curl the leaf & make a fold at the bottom
2 cups filtered water

Final touches:
12 raw yolks from Brined Eggs cut in half, or 24 whole salted egg yolks
Peanut oil
Sweet chili sauce (storebought)

1. (First watch the video so that all these steps make sense.) Wash the bamboo leaves carefully, not only to remove all of the dirt and dust, but more importantly to avoid being cut by any sharp edges on the leaves; if you have delicate skin, consider using rubber gloves for this.  After the leaves have been washed thoroughly, cover them in very hot water, along with the grass ties, if you are using them.  Let them stay in the water until you are ready to use them.

2. Mix the marinade ingredients together in a saucepan.
Wrap leaf into a cone

3. Remove the stems from the mushrooms and cut the caps into ½-inch cubes.  Cut the gluten batons lengthwise into four strips, and then cut the strips into ¼-inch dice.  Place the mushrooms and gluten in the saucepan along with the marinade ingredients and bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a very gentle simmer.  Slowly braise the mushrooms and gluten while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

4. If you are using toon leaves, rinse, wipe dry, and crumble then into a small bowl.  Crumble the soy skin as well into smallish pieces into another small bowl.  Cut the pressed beancurd into ¼-inch dice and set aside in yet another small bowl.  Dry-fry the sesame seeds in a wok over medium heat, stirring constantly, until they are just turning gold and smell wonderful; remove them to a large bowl.

Place the filled dough in the leaf
5. Heat the peanut oil in a wok over medium heat until it begins shimmer.  Add the crumbled toon leaves and stir them quickly in the oil to separate the leaves; after only about 5 or 10 seconds, remove the leaves with a slotted spoon to a large bowl.  Sprinkle the soy skin into the hot oil and stir-fry until it puffs up, then remove it with a slotted spoon to the large bowl.  Add the diced pressed beancurd to the hot oil and stir-fry for 3 or 4 minutes until the edges of the bean curd begin to brown, and then remove all of the bean curd to the large bowl.  Use a slotted spoon to scoop the mushrooms and gluten out of the marinade (reserve the marinade) and add them to the wok, stir-frying them for a few minutes until the gluten begins to barely brown. 

6. At this point, drain the oil out of the wok and then return all of the contents of the bowl to the wok along with the peanuts, shallots, and about 4 tablespoons of the reserved marinade.  Stir them over the heat for about 5 minutes to combine them and heat them through; remove the wok from the heat and set it aside until the filling ingredients have cooled down.

Fold top over to enclose dough
7. In a large bowl, mix together the rice flour, all-purpose flour, and salt, then add the water about ½ cup at a time, stirring the water into the flour until a dough has formed.  Knead the dough in the bowl until it is shiny and forms a firm ball.  Divide the dough into 24 pieces and roll each piece into a small ball; set aside.

8. Drain the bamboo leaves and wipe them dry with a tea towel; select the 24 nicest leaves and reserve any extras, as well as broken or split ones, on the side.  Stack the leaves up and cover them with the tea towel so that they remain soft and supple.  Drain and rinse the grass ties, if you’re using them, and place them under the towel as well.

And then tie it securely
9. Before you wrap the tamales, you need to add the filling to the rice dough balls.  Cover a baking sheet with a piece of plastic wrap or wax paper.  Then, take one of the little balls, make an indentation in it with your thumb, and then quickly shape the ball into a cup.  Add about 1½ tablespoons of the filling to the cup along with either a half or whole salted yolk, if you want.  Close the dough over the filling and gently roll the dough between your hands to return it to a ball shape; it’s quite all right and perfectly expected if some of the filling pokes out; just try to keep it in a general ball shape.  Place the filled ball of dough on the plastic wrap or wax paper.  Repeat this with the rest of the dough and filling until you have 24 filled balls of dough.

10. Now comes the fun part.  Pick up one of the bamboo leaves and notice that there’s a shiny and a rough side.  Lightly coat the shiny side of the leaf with some peanut oil (dip a paper towel or the tips of your fingers in the oil and then smear it over the leaf).  Bring both ends of the leaf together to form a small, curved funnel, making sure that the funnel part has about ¼ inch of a fold at the bottom so that it doesn’t open up -- note that this is the secret to tying the perfect zongzi, because otherwise the filling will just work its way out of the leaf.  Place one of the filled balls in the funnel area, and then fold the leaves over the funnel covering all of the seams and enclosing it completely. Wrap the ends of the leaves around the funnel, and then gently wrap one end of a grass tie or piece of kitchen string around the tamale to secure it.  
An old tiger sachet for the Festival

11. This is a lot easier than it sounds, and after you’ve made a few tamales, this will go very quickly.  Don’t worry if you mess up a leaf; either use another leaf (that’s what the extras are for) or patch the split part with a piece of broken leaf.  And don’t get concerned if the dough balls get smooshed in the process; this doesn’t affect their flavor at all, and they will still look great when they’re unwrapped.

12. When all the tamales have been wrapped, tie them together in bunches of 4 to 6 by taking the long ends of the grass ties or string and knotting them together; this will make it easier to remove them from the steamer.  Bring the water in your steamer to a full boil and place the tamales in the steamer and steam over high heat for about 10 minutes, and then lower the heat to medium and steam for another 20 minutes, or longer if you wish.   

13. Let the tamales cool until they are barely warm or even room temperature before unwrapping; this will help them keep their shape and not stick to the wrappers.  Serve as is with some storebought sweet chili sauce on the side for dipping.  You can store the tamales in the refrigerator for about a week or freeze them for a longer period of time; just steam them for about 15 minutes (30 minutes for frozen ones) and let them cool down again before serving. 


Tender toon leaves on our tree
Toon leaves: These are called xiangchunye 香椿葉 in Chinese (Toona sinensis or Cedrela sinensis) and when fresh and tender are mainly used in Anhui style cuisine; you can sometimes find these in the frozen section or in jars. However, the older dried leaves are a popular ingredient for some Hakka style dishes, but I've rarely seen them outside of Taiwan. Your best bet is to grow one yourself or find someone who does. If a Chinese friend has one, see if you can dig up one of the suckers that these rangy trees send out. 

Boiled peanuts:  These are really easy. Just cover the skinned peanuts with water and soak overnight. Then, cook them until tender; this takes about an hour, more or less, depending upon the size and freshness of the peanuts.