Bakcang… Zongzi… Chinese Tamale… Part I

When I was at my mom’s last month, I got a special treat.  I got to help my mom with making her annual Bakcang.  Bakcang?  Yes, it is basically made from glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves, and it can be stuffed with different fillings. It is also called Zongzi or Chinese Tamale.

I actually did not know any of the history behind Bakcang.  I only know that my mom would make it once a year, and she would have her four girls help her make this food.  I am going to brag that I am the only one of her girls that can wrap Bakcang almost as good as my mom.  That’s what my mom said!  So,  sisters, please don’t be jealous! 😛

Thanks to blogging, it also made me do some research and do some reading on stuff.  Before, I would just eat Bakcang and move on.  Now, I know there is a story behind this particular food.  It went back about over two thousand years ago in China, during the Zhou dynasty.  It was said that the despaired, famous poet Qu Yuan threw himself in the river and drowned himself when his country was overtaken by a neighboring ally.  The local people who loved Qu Yuan then threw in Bakcang so that fish would not eat his body.  There are also different variations of the story where the Bakcang was for Qu Yuan to eat.  If you are interested in finding out more, you would have to do a more indepth research online and have fun!

Bakcang is usually celebrated during the fifth day of the fifth month of the Lunar Calendar.  It is also the day the Chinese celebrates the Dragon Boat Festival.  This is where another variation of the folklore comes in.  Supposedly people were trying to save or look for Qu Yuan’s body, hence the race of the boats.  To read more about the festivities, click here.

My mom usually made two kinds of Bakcang, salty and sweet. Technically, Bakcang is actually the salty one.  The sweet one is called Kweecang.  The salty one is usually stuffed with meat and other cooked food, and the sweet is made without filling.  The word sweet is somewhat misguided, because this one was actually not sweet, but you eat it with a mixture of shaved/shredded coconut with palm sugar.

For easier blogging, I will just refer to Bakcang, instead of referring to the different type.  The preparation is about the same for the salty or the sweet one.  The only difference of the salty and the sweet one is the filling.  Bakcang is one of those things that you have to be prepared to make it.  You have to think of what, where, and when to get your ingredients and when you plan on eating it.  I’m going to talk about the sweet one first, since it is a whole lot easier to talk about, plus I have almost a step by step pictures on the wrapping of Bakcang.

First you need glutinous rice, lye water, bamboo leaves, rafia rope (or any cooking rope) to tie the Bakcang, coconut, and palm sugar.

If you live in United States, you are probably lucky.  You can get a bag of glutinous rice and get 100% glutinous rice.  In Indonesia, you are not so lucky.  Sometimes the vendor would mixed in plain rice into the glutinous rice to make a penny more profit.  Also, sometimes the rice will contain other debris, such as husk, little tiny stones, etc.

So this was what my mom’s cook had to do.  She poured the glutinous rice into traditional bamboo tampah to clean it from any debris.  I had to call my best friend Elly to find out what was the name of this “thing” because I have forgotten the name of it.  It cracked her up that I forgot some of my Javanese or Indonesian.  Well, if you don’t use it, you lose it right?  She called it “tempeh”, which was how I remember it being called.  However, when I googled “tempeh”, it came out with the “tempe” as the soy bean cake.  After further googling, I found references about Tampah.  However, I still cannot find any references about Tampah in English, so this link would have to do for now.  This is the Google translation of the website.

Tampah is made from woven, sliced, thinned bamboo.  It was woven so tightly that there is not any tiny food particle can slip under.  The diameter is ranging about 25 – 30 inches.  Tampah is used to help remove debris such as husks from rice or to sort any foreign particle in the rice.

So, Neti, my mom’s cook, poured the glutinous rice on to the Tampah.  After spreading the rice around on the tampah, then she moved the tampah upward (maybe about 30-45 degree angle), resulting at the rice to be uplifted to the air.  Then, as the rice fall down back to the tampah, Neti would also move the tampah lower (maybe about -5 to -10 degree from the original position).  She continued this upward and downward motions until all of the lighter debris (husk) are gone.  With the uplifting motion of the rice, the debris would also float up on the air, however, because it is a lot lighter than the rice, the husk usually just float away, and would not make it back into the tampah.

Sometimes, if you have a lot of debris, you can also make a circular motion of the tampah, instead of the upward and downward motion.  The circular motion will bring the debris into the center of the tampah, and you can scoop the debris up and remove them.

After Neti finished sifting the debris, then the fun part begins.  Now they have to sort out the plain rice and the glutinous rice, as well as removing any tiny stones or other debris that might make it into the rice pile.  In this picture, my niece, Tiffany, helped sorting out the rice.  You would think, oh, that is tedious!!  Yes, it was tedious.  The plain rice is transparent, while the glutinous rice is solid white.  So you can differentiate the grains easily.  Then you ask, if there are not that many plain rice in it, why wouldn’t you just left it there?  The reason is the outcome of the Bakcang would be tough and not chewy and tender.  Additionally, my mom is into perfection, so of course this tedious task has to be done.

After all the debris and plain rice is removed, then the glutinous rice was scrubbed and washed.

The dirty glutinous rice water was poured out…and then the glutinous rice is soaked all night.  You would wonder, doesn’t that remove all the vitamins and the good stuff from the rice? The rice you get in Indonesia has not been cleaned as the one sold in the United States. It came directly from the farmers, to the rice mills, and sold to the vendors immediately. The process of removing rice from its hull was mostly manual work, so you can imagine how dirty the grains could be. So, the rigorous washing on the rice was just simply done. That is that.

Then the next day, the bamboo leaves were washed and wiped clean one by one.  Then the leaves were blanched in a boiling water in less than 5 minutes.  It was blanched long enough so that the leaves were pliable and can be molded as you want it to be.

Prepare your rope by bundling several same length ropes into one (or the number will be depending on how many Bakcang you plan on making).  This is to make it easier to cook and lift the Bakcang from the pot.  The way my mom did it is shown on the picture below, she nailed a huge nail into a corner of the wooden table, and hang the ropes there.

After everything is ready, then the Bakcang is ready to be made. After straining the glutinous rice and made sure there was no excess water, then my mom moved the rice into a pan.

She then put about 21 tablespoons of lye water.  Lye water?  Yes, food-grade lye water.  The purpose of the lye water is to give a tint of yellow color in the Bakcang.  The amount of the lye water is depending on how thick your lye water.  In my mom’s case, she used 1.25 kg of glutinous rice and 21 tablespoon of lye water.

Then she uses her hand and folded the rice and made sure all of the lye water was incorporated.

After a few moments, you can see the rice now has a tint of yellow on them.

Now she was ready to wrap the glutinous rice into the bamboo leaves.  First stack two bamboo leaves on your left hand.  Why two? Two bamboo leaves wrap rice a lot better than one.  Also, you want to create a Bakcang that is more than a mouthful, which would be produced if you are using one piece of bamboo leaf.  So, hold the bamboo leaves horizontally using your left hand, with the front part (shiny part) of the leaves facing you.  Then, cut an inch off the base on the right hand side.  Since the base of the bamboo leaves has that hard stem, it would just make it harder to make the shape of the Bakcang.

With your right hand (no photo here – I had to use both of my hands), hold the end of the base, and bend the base into a 45 degree angle toward you and your left hand.  Then, about in the middle of that 45 degree fold, put a crease on it and push the rest of the base of the leaves by your right thumb toward your left hand and you should end up with a cone shape on your left hand.  Your cone shape also need to be 1 ½ – 1 ¾  inches tall, to make sure you have a good size Bakcang.

You can see from the picture below that now the base of the bamboo leaves are in the inner part of the cone.  Also, make sure that none of the base stick outside of the rest of the bamboo leaves.

This is just a different angle of the bamboo leaves.  You can see in the lower right of the cone, there was a tear in one of the bamboo leaf already.  This is part of why you should use two bamboo leaves at one time.  Once you are satisfied with your cone shape, then you can proceed with filling the cone with rice.

I usually filled up the cone with rice until it almost overflowed with rice.

Then, I folded the bamboo leaves over the rice, and press down the leaves by the both sides of the cone.  By this action, you ended up with a triangle shape.  To make your triangle shape easier, squeeze the sides of the cone gently with both your thumb and index finger.  I found out that by squeezing the wall of the cone helped make your firm triangle shape.

Then, fold the excess bamboo leaves to follow the body of the Bakcang.

And grab your rafia rope and loop it around the body of the Bakcang twice and tie it.  Don’t tie it so tight that it would burst during cooking.

This is a different angle of the Bakcang.

This is when we finish wrapping all the rice.  To make it neater, you can trim off the excess bamboo leaves by cutting the tip of the leaves that were jutting out of the body of the Bakcang.

Then drop the whole bunch into a big pot of boiling water.  Make sure the water just a little bit above the Bakcang.  Cook it for 4 hours, and then leave the Bakcang in the pot for another hour.  This is to make sure that the outer part of the Bakcang would be moist and not dried.  I guess this is similar to covering a roast freshly come out of the oven with aluminium foil.

Then, while it cooled off, you can make your gula kelapa (coconut sugar mixture). It is made from shaved/shredded ripe coconut, mixed with palm sugar, and cook it until it resembles a preserve.  I was not in the kitchen when Neti made it, so I did not have any pictures. 😦

This is the final product.  Bakcang with coconut sugar.  The Bakcang itself was tasteless, as you find out, my mom did not put any seasoning on it.  However, when you eat it with the coconut mixture, it was just the right combination of the Bakcang.  Sweet, crisp, and chewy.

Now, when you venture out to the Chinatown or any Chinese store/restaurant that has this food, you know what that is, and how people make them! 🙂

There are several blog sites that I found during my research of Bakcang.  You can check them out and see the different methods people use.  Have fun!

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5 Responses to Bakcang… Zongzi… Chinese Tamale… Part I

  1. wenny says:

    Wah, mantap, buat orang jadi ngiler.. Haha….


  2. axokuaci says:

    hahaha.. bukannya udah dapet? 😛


  3. Pingback: Bakcang… Zongzi… Chinese Tamale… Part II | Anny's Blog

  4. Lye water itu air khi bukan mbak?
    tau brp kisaran konsentrasi NaOH nya gak???


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