If there was a dish that sums up why learning to cook heritage food at home is so important for me, it would be zhang or glutinous rice dumplings. Zhangs are ubiquitous in Singapore throughout the year, but everyone knows that the best dumplings are the ones from people’s homes – they would be the most generous in fillings and never skimp on labour. Receiving a zhang from a friend or family member can feel a little like opening a Christmas present – you never really know what is in it or what it’d taste like.
The first time I made zhang was when I moved to Melbourne and was feeling homesick. I made two varieties – the Teochew zhang, which had both sweet and savoury fillings in a dumpling, and the Nonya zhang, probably the most distinctive zhang in Singapore’s dumpling lexicon. The rice is stained partially blue with blue pea flowers and the filling has strong notes of coriander powder and taucheo. I didn’t want to cut any corners and toasted and ground my own coriander seeds, cooked the dumplings in a pandan-scented bath and slipped a square of pandan in each dumpling. The resulting zhangs were so sublime that it made all the shopbought Nonya zhangs I’d eaten in my life seem like imposters.
Making these dumplings do take a lot of time and elbow grease and is not worth making a small batch. However, if you are new to the dumpling world, Nonya zhang is the perfect place to begin as they only require one filling. As with all labour-intensive dishes, please do not take any shortcuts – if you are making something that takes time, you might as well make it the best it can be.
Day 1 morning:
10g dried or fresh blue pea flowers
1kg glutinous rice, split into 300g and 700g
Day 1 evening/ night:
50-60 dried bamboo leaves (you will need only 40 but soak more to account for tearing)
25-35 reed string or cotton twine (you will need only 20 but soak more reed string to account for breaking)
6 tablespoons shallot oil or vegetable oil
600g rindless pork belly, cut into a small dice
18 dried Chinese mushrooms, soaked in water until soft, discard stems, cut into a small dice
240g candied winter melon, small dice
1 ½ tablespoon freshly ground coriander (toast in a dry pan then grind)
¾ teaspoon ground white pepper
3 heaped tablespoon tau cheo
Dark soy sauce (optional if your taucheo is of the dark variety)
4 teaspoons salt
A large bunch of whole pandan leaves
20 small rectangles of pandan leaves
More shallot oil
I find it easiest if you spread the work out over two days. The morning of day 1, soak the rice. The night of day 2, fry the rice and filling and soak the leaves. Assemble and cook the Nonya zhang on day 3.
On the morning of day 1, combine the dried blue pea flowers and 800g water in a pot. Bring to a boil and allow to cool down before passing through a sieve. Press down on the flowers to extract all the liquid – discard the flowers. Rinse 300g glutinous rice and combine with the blue pea infused liquid in a bowl. In a separate bowl, rinse 700g glutinous rice and allow to soak in a liberal amount of water. The rice should soak for at least 6 hours before frying.
Place the bamboo leaves and reed strings in a large pail or Esky. Fill with boiling water to cover and allow to soak overnight. You won’t need to soak cotton strings if you are using them. Heat a large saucepan over high heat until your hand placed over it feels hot. Add 2 tablespoons of the shallot oil and once it shimmers, add the pork belly in batches, stirring to break up the pieces. You want the pork belly to be slightly browned, but you don’t want it to cook for so long over high heat in the pan or it will be dry and hard – it’s best to work in batches in a hot pan. Add the diced mushrooms and saute for a few minutes or until fragrant before adding the candied melon. Cook the candied melon for a few minutes or until it loosens its white, dusty appearance to take on a more glistening, jeweled look. Add coriander, white pepper, taucheo and dark soy sauce, if preferred, for colour. When completely stirred in, add 250g water and cook until the mixture has reduced to a thick saucy consistency – you don’t want the liquid to completely evaporate or for the mixture to get too dry. Taste it and adjust the seasoning – it should be sweet, salty and savoury and should be too strong to eat on its own. Transfer to a dish to cool down.
Drain both bowls of soaked rice and fry them separately. Fry the regular rice with 3 tablespoons of shallot oil and 3 teaspoons of salt and blue rice with 1 tablespoon of shallot oil and 1 teaspoon of salt. The rice is ready when it is still raw but starting to clump. Transfer both blue and white rice to dishes, making sure to keep them separate. You can also choose to mix both colours of rice together to achieve a marbled effect.
To assemble the dumplings, everything should be at room temperature. Bring a large pot or wok of water to boil with the whole pandan leaves, allow to simmer to infuse as you tie the dumplings.
Tie the ends of the strings to a metal hook and hang it on a door or cupboard handle. Drain and rinse the bamboo leaves individually. Dry each with a paper towel or clean cloth before rubbing lightly with shallot oil – don’t be too generous with the oil or your dumplings will be too oily. Line two leaves up in a straight line, tapered ends facing the middle – they should overlap more than three-quarters of the way. Fold it to form a cone, then add a pandan leaf square. Add a thin layer of glutinous rice just to cover the base, then add a generous amount of filling. Cover half of the filling with white rice and the other half with blue rice. Add less rice than you think you require as the rice will swell. Fold the excess leaves down over the rice, bring up the sides, before folding excess leaves down. Tie tightly with string. Remove the pandan leaves from the pot or wok and bring the water up to a rolling boil. Tie the ends of the dumpling strings together and add the dumplings – if your pot or wok is not large enough to accommodate all, work in batches. Boil for 1 hour, covered. Contrary to what aunties usually tell you, I don’t think it is necessary to completely submerge the dumplings in water – three quarters of the way is sufficient, as long as your pot is well-sealed. Hang the Nonya zhang to drain and drip dry for at least an hour before consuming.