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A New Meaning to Duanwu Festival

My mom's homemade Bak Chang
June 6, 2011 happens to be the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, which marks the Duanwu Festival 端午节 (also known as the Dragon Boat Festival), celebrated by Chinese people all over the world.

The celebration of Duanwu includes dragon boat racing and feasting on traditional rice dumplings called zongzi 粽子.

In Penang, 'zongzi' is more widely known by its Hokkien name - 'chang'. Made of glutinous rice that is stuffed with various fillings, zongzi is available in savoury & sweet versions, wrapped in a pyramid shape with bamboo or reed leaves. The most common rice dumplings in Penang are the meat filled versions called 'bak chang'.

Auntie selling various zongzi at Chowrasta Market
Like many traditional Chinese foods cooked during festival time, zongzi is based on folklore, and was one of the many stories I learned as a child.

The legend is based on Qu Yuan 屈原 (340-278 BC.), the pioneer poet of ancient China. He was a descendant of the Chu royal house, who was banished from his high ranking position when he opposed the king’s decision to ally with the expanding neighbour state of Qin. When the capital of Chu fell into the power of Qin, Qu Yuan’s grief drove him to commit suicide by drowning in the Miluo River on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month.

To honour Qu Yuan’s courage for standing up to the king, the local people threw rice dumplings into the river to feed the fish so that they would not eat Qu Yuan's body.


The annual tradition continues today, so on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, families come together to make zongzi. But to the dismay of all the hungry fish in Penang, zongzi are now given out as gifts to family and friends. And also sold all over the island at morning markets during the days leading up to the festival.

A Thai-Chinese lady selling mini zongzi at Chowrasta market
As simple as ‘rice dumpling’ sounds, there is a good reason why it is only made once a year at home – it’s a tedious, multi day process in the kitchen. An exhausting activity that only the most determined can accomplish. Of course, I’m talking about my mom.

Mom spends three days in the kitchen to make different types of delicious zongzi - meat dumplings (bak chang) with Chinese five spice, alkaline dumplings (kee chang) with coconut and palm sugar sauce, and Nyonya dumplings (Nyonya chang) that have similar ingredients to bak chang, but include a few surprises like candied winter melon, and a spice blend of anise seed and coriander powder.

Last year alone she made 200 dumplings for relatives and friends, proving again not only her gift in cooking, but also her love for those around her.

Getting ready to fill the bamboo leaves
“You didn’t learn to make zongzi from Grandma?” I assumed that such a traditional food had to be taught and passed down from one generation to another.

“She made the best dumplings, but I was never interested to learn when I was younger. Your aunts helped out instead,” Mom replied.

I felt reassured that maybe there was still hope for my zongzi making skills. “How did you learn then? And the leaf wrapping part?”

“I bought a few bamboo leaves at the Air Itam market, and then tried folding them at home. I regretted not learning from Grandma, but I kept at it until I figured it out.” She noticed me struggling with wrapping the bak chang. I handed it to her and she folded it in a flash. “Look, it’s easy.”

Masters always forget they were once amateurs.

“Of course, I did ask a few questions about the ingredients and process before getting it right.”

My mom appears innocent, but she’s fearless in the kitchen.

 

There I was, trying to record all the ingredients; estimating the measurements; watching her every step; taking over some cutting and stir-frying tasks; and feeling completely overwhelmed with the process. Making zongzi is a messy, demanding job. It’s unfortunate, but it’s comes as no surprise that more and more families are buying zongzi instead of following tradition and doing it themselves.

About to cook for four hours on my mom's stove
After the experience in making zongzi with Mom, I promised myself never to take for granted any traditional foods that Mom cooks up. For many people, Duanwu Festival may only mean a time of feasting, but I now see the annual tradition as a day to remember Mom's love and hard work.

For the most determined of you, and the curious, you can find Mom’s recipe for bak chang (rou zongzi 粽子) on Season with Spice.

Mom's other versions of zongzi - the mini Kee Chang with coconut & palm sugar sauce and Nyonya Chang with spices.

6 comments:

ilene said...

I so miss my nyonya chang!

stephen said...

Wow it's great your mum is still using the traditional banana fibre to tie the chang.Gives it that authentic look.
I love bak changs filled with chunky three tired fatty meat inside! A bit of indulgence every now and then is good for the soul! What's the point of having stents when you don't use them, I say.
And I love cold kee chang dipped in gula melaka, shiokalingam!
Love the pics,I'm drooling already.

Reese said...

ilene - Nyonya chang is my favorite too! Much lighter than bak chang, so we can pig out.


Stephen - yep, my mom is a traditionalist when comes to food. I just put up two more pictures of Nyonya Chang & Kee Chang for you to look at:)

Btw, you just taught Mark a new Malaysian word. Shiokalingam!

brenttan said...

I love changs, all kinds, especially the bak chang, the nonya chang is the one some call pua kiam tnee chang, right? As a kid, i loved especially with my sweet tooth, now few real ones left, the kngee chang.

Reese said...

ilene - Nyonya chang is my favorite too! Much lighter than bak chang, so we can pig out.


Stephen - yep, my mom is a traditionalist when comes to food. I just put up two more pictures of Nyonya Chang & Kee Chang for you to look at:)

Btw, you just taught Mark a new Malaysian word. Shiokalingam!

brenttan said...

I love changs, all kinds, especially the bak chang, the nonya chang is the one some call pua kiam tnee chang, right? As a kid, i loved especially with my sweet tooth, now few real ones left, the kngee chang.