Friday, June 25, 2004

Of Dumplings & Dragons

What do Singaporean housewives do in their free time? Make rice dumplings, of course! At least my mom does.

Ah yes, the familiar shape of the bah zhang - 4 cornered, bamboo-leaf-wrapped packages and its sticky contents of glutinous rice, mushrooms, pork, and chestnuts to be savoured with dark, sweet sauce. Back in my secondary school days, I used to eat it practically everyday in the late afternoons because that was all they had in the school canteen.

Old wives' wisdom dictates that you can't eat more than 2 or 3 at a go, or else indigestion and bloatedness will afflict the greedy and foolish one.

For the culturally amnesic, rice dumplings are part of the Duan Wu Jie, aka dragon boat festival. This festival commemorates Qu Yuan (332-296 BC), a patriotic Chinese poet who, according to folklore, drowned himself in a river in a bid to protest against rampant corruption. To the horror of environmentalists and lovers of aquatic life alike, the lau bai xing (i.e. common people) began throwing rice in the river while beating drums and splashing water to keep the fish from getting to the poet's body.

Motivated by curiosity and a need to maintain my reputation at home as mommy's domesticated boy, I joined in the dumpling making while my father and brother were simply disinterested in this supposed family activity. But I failed miserably at this deceptively difficult task of filling, wrapping, and tying the dumplings. In the end, I only managed 2 and my mom made the rest.

These dumplings that my mom made were ti zhang, a fillingless variation of yellow glutinous rice to be eaten with sugar - white, brown, or coconut. It has a signature smell that I absolutely detested when I was young, probably because it wasn't sweet enough for my liking. And I could never understand why my mom kept buying it even though nobody else at home really liked it.

So when my mom began making it this time round, I asked her why. Her answer was so simple, it floored me.

"I like it."

This time round though, my mom decided to experiment by filling the dumplings with red bean paste. The experiment failed miserably; the middle of the red-bean-filled dumplings stubbornly refused to cook properly, despite hours of boiling and steaming. My mom, evidently used to occasional failure in the kitchen, was instead rather amused and proceeded to rectify the situation by painstakingly reconfiguring each dumpling.

As I hesistantly sampled her handiwork, my mom quizzed, "did you know that the Great Wall of China is made of the very same glutinous rice?"

Guess she wanted to exonerate herself for underestimating the resilience of the humble grain of glutinous rice.

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