June 17, 2012

Mom's traditional Shanghainese zongzi

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The parental units had me over for dinner tonight.  Mom knows I'll be out of town next weekend, which means I'll be missing the festivities for the Dragon Boat Festival (端午節).  She's making her first batch of zongzi (粽子) this season, and wanted to make sure I got some.

I didn't arrive early enough to see her crouched over the whole spread of ingredients or to help out… but for the first time ever, we did talk about how she makes them.  Mom doesn't keep notes - she knows this is one of her downfalls - so there's bound to be some inconsistency in her cooking… especially for things that she doesn't cook often.  Zongzis are a once-a-year thing, and she doesn't even make them every year.  She was very worried that this batch won't turn out well, since she felt a little rusty at the start of the day.

She felt a little unsure of the ratio between the glutinous rice and the meat during the process, and ended up over-stuffing some of them with rice.  After she realized that there was too much rice, it was then necessary to cook them for longer… It was all in suspense until we opened up the first few, and mom was able to breathe a sigh of relief.  They weren't perfect, but she felt they were at least good enough to be given away to friends without embarrassment.

Different regions in China each has its own version of the rice dumpling, with different shapes and varying ingredients.  Mom generally stays true to the traditional Shanghainese school, which means that the zongzis are elongated with four pointed corners.  Unlike Taiwanese zongzi, the Shanghainese don't cook the ingredients first.  The glutinous rice and meat are stuffed inside the folded bamboo leaves raw, and cooked for an extended period of time until the flavors are absorbed throughout.  Today some of the batches were cooked for up to 4 hours in large stock pots.

I asked mom whether she's ever thought about adding other ingredients, since all she stuffs in there are pork, a little slice of Chinese ham and some lotus seeds.  Both Taiwanese and Cantonese zongzi have a lot more interesting ingredients.  For her, though, traditional savory Shanghainese zongzi is really all about the meat.  This year she used a combination of pork belly and pork shoulder, to get a balance between the lean meat and fatty goodness.  She made sure to use only a thin slice of ham, and to dial down the saltiness by soaking it in water for a few minutes.  As for the lotus seeds… they are a little unusual I guess.  Each zongzi gets 8 of these, stuffed at each end, and they help in adding texture as well as balance out the savory flavors.

So how did they turn out, taste-wise?  Pretty good, I think.  The ham wasn't as salty as last year, and pork had the right texture balance.  The only thing mom is still unhappy about is the color of the rice.  While the glutinous rice has the right level of saltiness, she would have preferred a darker brownish tone.  Maybe she'll have to use a different type of soy sauce, like dark soy sauce (老抽).  I guess there's always the next batch to experiment on...

1 comment:

Michelle Chin said...

There's always next year. Always. :)


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