Sunday, June 8, 2008

Bak zhang, steamboat and other seasonal goodies

Today (Sunday June 8, 2008) is the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, which is the Duan Wu Jie (端午节), also known as Dragon Boat Festival. For many, the occasion is marked chiefly by the making and eating of zhang (zongzi, 粽子) – glutinous rice and a variety of stuffing wrapped in bamboo leaves, and then steamed or boiled.

The quick and dirty history behind the festival is as follows. Upright Chinese scholar quits corrupt government. Wanders the country getting in touch with the people and writing beautiful poetry. Country’s capital falls to barbarians; scholar depressed; commits suicide by drowning as a form of protest against inept government (that’s what happens when you can’t join the opposition and contest in elections). People distraught. They throw glutinous rice into river so that bad creatures won’t eat dead scholar, under the theory that fragrant rice is better than rotting flesh. So, nowadays we eat bak zhang to remember this upright scholar. Well, actually, we eat them because they ARE YUMMY.

Anyway, for the full history behind the festival (and why folks race dragon boats during this festival), there’s always the most accurate, reliable and up-to-date onlinepedia in the world ☺.

I was going to write this very long post on the adventure of asking Mum to teach me how to make bak zhang, and the whole time-consuming process, but, sorry J, I got lazy. Basically, preparing the ingredients was not a problem; wrapping the bak zhang, however, proved too much for me. I just couldn’t get my fingers and hands dancing nimbly enough to produce a self-respecting version that has a semblance of some pointy corners, or learn how to tie them up properly to withstand the boiling. I was also so slow that in the time I took to make six, mum finished 30.

Most of mine turned out like the worst kind of politicians – shapeless, slippery and totally disintegrating when subjected to heat. Only two of my six survived the watery inquisition. Ancient scholar would have been fish feed if he had to depend on me.

There are today a gazillion varieties of savoury and sweet zhang on the market, but we eat a very simple version of the savoury bak zhang, with pork…

… oysters and chestnuts.

We have in the past added mushrooms, and most classic recipes for the savoury type will call for some (or all) of the following ingredients – Chinese sausage, salted eggs, dried shrimp and boiled peanuts. But our preference follows our family’s more stripped down taste buds.

We are also having a family dinner tonight to mark the occasion – a steamboat (or hot pot, or da pin low as the Cantonese call it) feast for seven. Mum started making her fish paste yesterday …

… so we’ll have homemade bean curd sheets and beancurd balls stuffed with fish paste (yong foo zhok and yong tau pok, below) as well as the usual assortment of seafood, pork, home-grown vegetables and noodles.

Sis is bringing frog’s legs and pork kidney to liven things up. It’s not quite the season, but San Francisco Bay Area Dungeness crabs would have been perfect!

I now have to go to the gym to train for tonight’s food fest!