By Anthony Dylan
The Dragon Boat Festival is synonymous with the partaking of the famous “bak chang” or “zhong” or “zongzi”. The festival is held on the 5th day of the 5th month of the lunar calendar. It is also known as the “Duanwu” festival.
The origin of this festival is just as fascinating. It was believed that on that day, a patriotic poet and Minister Qu Yuan of the Chu period drowned himself in the Miluo River as he could not stand the thought of the Qin Empire invading and conquering his beloved Chu state. At that time for some reason, he was already exiled by the King.
It was believed that the villagers raced in their boats to retrieve his body. That was thought to be the start of the dragon boat race. When they could not find his body, the people who admired him chose to throw rice balls into the river so that the fish would eat them instead of his body. Hence, the origin of the zongzi came about.
The pyramid and triangular shaped package holds a tasty delight. Some are made sweet and some savoury. However, to many of us, the savoury type and the alkaline water type are more popular. The latter is also known as “Kee Chang” and you would see people eating it either plain or with sugar and even kaya. Personally, I find it an acquired taste.
There is a skill in preparing the bak chang. The type of filling would normally consist of pork, chestnuts, mushrooms, dried shrimps and a salted egg yolk. Some would also replace them with non-pork ingredients like beef, lamb or even chicken. Some would also create a vegetarian version which is just as good. It is up to the creative minds of the cook.
The Nyonya Chang would be a bit sweeter than the normal bak chang but with a more flavourful taste due to the mix of spices. These are normally coloured abit with the purple flower (butterfly pea flower or bunga telang or its scientific name; Clitoria ternatea).
The ingredients are expertly placed with glutinous rice on two bamboo leaves before being packed tight. The packing and the conical nature becomes a triangular pyramid shape when wrapped. They are then bound with a bamboo leaf string or a reed string before being boiled.
The bak chang has always been a legacy recipe and a heritage food which we hope would not disappear. Much like the old kuih and snacks made by our previous generation, these are worth keeping and protecting. Whilst it is ok to experiment and make different, the original type must not be forgotten as this recipe would be the base for all modifications.
In some countries, the shape could also be different and wrapped with other leaves like lotus leaves. However, the main ingredients remain true to its origins. One would never be bored with the simple zongzi.
Some would also love the alkaline tasting “Kee Chang”. This is made with lye water. The making of variations of the zongzi is a culinary experience. I have eaten sweet ones as well which are filled with red bean or lotus bean paste. I have also seen some of the same shape but made with jelly and cold. Perhaps this is the beginning of the dessert zongzi.
The commercially available ones we see at various restaurants seem to take on a more luxurious route. Some would pack them with crab roe and even abalone or sea cucumber. Others would pack them with waxed meat made from duck or pork or beef or lamb. They are not cheap as these have expensive ingredients.
However, I prefer to get my cravings of these beautifully wrapped triangular packages from small vendors or from families who make them on such occasions. The taste is more basic and has character. Commercial ones tend to be more uniformed.
The bak chang can be eaten at any time of the day. It is a filling snack as it lasts against your hunger pangs. It stores well in the freezer too and all you need is to re-steam them. Chinese tea normally accompanies the sticky glutinous rice package. But even your typical teh or kopi does the same effect.
It has always been an experience eating the bak chang. The unwrapping is much like the anticipation when unboxing your gift. The cut of the string leads you to the unwrapping of the oily bamboo leaf. As the leaf is unfolded, the glistening sheen on the glutinous rice greets you. Along with the waft of appetite enhancing smells, you cannot wait to slice it up to see what’s inside. The centre filling is the highlight of your sight. The taste comes next. The enjoyment interceded with sips of your tea or coffee makes it an experience like no other.
Let us hope that such legacy and heritage is not lost. Each has its own fascinating story. The future generation must be taught to appreciate heritage and learn from being good.