Monday, May 30, 2016

In search of the elusive amber tamale, plus a short story on Life & Thyme

(Note: In addition to the recipe and blogpost below that will help you celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival in style on Thursday, June 9, here is a link to a story I wrote and illustrated for Life & Thyme. It talks about how I was finally able to breach the yawning gap between my forbidding Chinese mother-in-law and a very young [and impossibly white] me. It has nothing to do with the Dragon Boat Festival, but oh well...)

Early in my marriage, I noticed that my Chinese husband became increasingly excited as Dragon Boat Festival approached, spending more time than usual haunting his favorite delis. He was, as I soon found out, stalking the elusive amber tamale. 

A gorgeous amber tamale

Unlike all the other varieties out there — including burrito-sized ones from Hunan with massive centers of braised pork or sweet bean paste, delicate Suzhou versions with date paste and pine nuts, or some simple Beijing rice parcels speckled with boiled peanuts — these were not on everyone’s radar, and so his anxiety would increase the longer the hunt took until he had finally tracked down someone who not only sold them, but made them with the requisite pillowy texture.

The first time I tried amber tamales (that’s my name for them, as the Chinese one, “alkali tamales,” or jiănzòng 鹼糉is just not very appealing), I was bowled over. For one, they were semitransparent and a beautiful golden color very much like, well, amber. Second, they were cold and topped with some plain sugar. Third, the tamale itself had no filling... it was rice and nothing else. And finally, it was unexpectedly delicious. (By the way, the character for "tamales" can be written as either 糉 or 粽 - they mean the same thing.)

Much like my other favorite type, the one made with sticky rice flour and an assortment of savory things called bănzòng 板糉this was a specialty of the Hakka, those latecomers to South China who seasoned the food of their neighbors with the ancient flavors of the North China Plain. Even now, jianzong are an integral part of Dragon Boat Festival ceremonies among the Hakka, as they are offered with other seasonal gifts to such deities as the Earth God (Tŭdìgōng 土地公). 

It's tamale time!
Be that as it may, I never really noticed them until I got married, and I probably would never have gotten around to eating one so early in my life if my husband and father-in-law were not dedicated amber tamale fiends. But to their credit, on a hot summer’s day it would be difficult to find something more satisfying to munch on than these little guys sometimes called jiănshuĭzòng 鹼水糉 sprinkled with sugar or honey for a simple snack.

The amber tamale also has a unique flavor courtesy of the alkaline water it simmers away in for around four hours, one that tastes slightly sulfurous, and so it is an acquired taste. Once I realized that it smelled a lot like an egg yolk, my brain stopped protesting, I lifted up my fork, and I took up the amber tamale habit with a passion.

Those first couple of years I found that the best ones were sold in Taipei’s South Gate Market, a food emporium packed to the gills with small stalls selling dried goods and large delis bustling with ladies who turned out some of the finest Chinese snack foods I have ever eaten. Watching them enfold raw rice into stacks of bamboo leaves was also an eye-opener for me because before then I never could get a grip on the secrets to wrapping them perfectly so that they looked beautiful and had the requisite bouncy texture in the center. But one day I stood there for close to thirty minutes, surreptitiously watching their every move while poking around in the bins out front and learned their moves.
Make the cone

As good as those store-bought ones were, making these you at home will give you the chance to taste these at their best. The problem is that most people turn jianzong into hard little nuggets with dry, powdery centers, and that just misses the whole point of these delectable bundles of joy.

The key is to wrap the raw rice so that there is just enough room for it to expand, turning these from raggedy looking parcels into familiar plump balloons. Some people put a green or red bean filling in these, but I like mine like this: plain and delicious.

Amber tamales
Jiănshuĭzòng 鹼水糉
Makes 24 tamales

Use folds to enclose the rice
2½ cups round sticky rice (yuán nuòmĭ 圓糯米)
1½ tablespoons baking soda
24 large, dried bamboo leaves (zòngyè 糉葉)
Large pot of boiling water
Butcher’s twine or dry grass ties

Dark brown or granulated sugar, honey, or osmanthus blossom syrup (guìhuājiàng 桂花醬)

1. Start this the day before you are planning to make the zongzi and two days before you want to eat them. Rinse the rice in a large sieve, drain, and then place in a large work bowl. Toss the damp rice well with the baking soda, cover, and let it sit overnight on a kitchen counter.

2. Either the night before or the day of, soak the bamboo leaves in very hot water, swishing them around now and then so that all of them get evenly soaked. Soak the dry grass too, if you are using it.

3. When you are ready to wrap the tamales, lay a large tea towel on a table and place the bowl of now very yellow rice there, along with a spoon, the twine or soaked grass, and a pair of kitchen shears. (Here is a video I made for instructions on filling and wrapping these.)

4. Next, wash the leaves by carefully sponging off both sides and then rinsing them. The edges of the leaves are sharp, so don’t cut yourself. Drain the leaves, pat them with a towel, and then wrap them in a clean towel so that they do not dry out.
Ready for the pot

5. Use your shears to trim off the stem end of the leaves, as well the point. Use only leaves that have no splits or holes; put any damaged ones to the side, as these can act as bandages (more on that later).

6. Now comes the fun part: wrapping the zongzi.  Hold a leaf at both ends with the shiny side toward you, and then curl the leaf around to make a cone in the center. Here is the first key to success: make sure that there is a little fold at the bottom of the cone that you can bend over, as this will seal in the rice. Scoop about 3 tablespoons of the rice into the cone, and then lightly fold the ends of the leaves over the cone. At this point comes the second key to success: lightly shake the tamale; if it rattles and no rice comes flying out, the wrapping is just right, but if you don’t hear the rice bouncing around, then the wrapper is too tight and you need to loosen it.

7. Wrap twine (or grass) around the center of the zongzi maybe 3 or 4 times, but not too tightly. Imagine that you are tying a string around a baby’s wrist, but you don’t want it to fall off: that is how tight/loose you want it. (The rice will swell up quickly in the boiling water, so don’t worry about the shape too much at this point.) Leave about 10 to 12 inches of twine or grass hanging off of the zongzi so that they can be eventually bundled together, and that’s it. Now do the same with the rest of the rice and leaves. If any of the leaves split, you can cut a piece of the broken ones off and insert it inside of the cone to act as a bandage. You should end up with 20 tamales, give or take.
Chilled & ready to eat

8. When all of these parcels have been wrapped and tied, bundle them in groups of 5 by tying the ends of the string or grass together into a knot. Then, gently lower these bundles into the pot of boiling water; the water should cover the tops of the zongzi by a few inches, as the rice will absorb the water. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer and cover the pot. Slowly cook the zongzi for 4 hours, adding more boiling water as necessary, and then drain them into a colander. Cool them completely, wrap in a plastic bag, and chill overnight.

9. To serve, unwrap a zongzi or two per person and arrange these on individual plates. Offer any of the garnishes (or all of them, if you are feeling particularly generous) to your diners. These can be eaten with chopsticks, but I’ve found that forks work particularly well here.

(This article originally appeared in more or less the same format in Cleaver Quarterly in 2014)