Monday, June 14, 2010

Dumplings bring back memories of days gone by

AT one time, if you were a Chinese woman but did not know how to wrap a chang (Hokkien for glutinous rice dumplings), you risked being ridiculed for it was one of the skills that women were expected to acquire by the time they were of marrying age - along with the ability to make nienko (sticky glutinous rice cakes) and prepare tongyuen (sweet rice dumplings).

Before raffia strings came about, a mangrove reed called kiam chow was used to tie the dumplings. The reeds and bamboo leaves used to wrap the dumplings had to be soaked overnight to make them supple before they could be used.

Folding the bamboo leaves to wrap the dumplings is an art even origami experts would not dare to belittle. Two or three bamboo leaves are first overlapped and folded by crossing the ends to form a cone into which the glutinous rice and fillings are placed.

Then the protruding section of the leaves is folded down neatly to cover the fillings to form a pyramid.

The strand of reed is whipped twice around the girth of the pyramid, tightened just enough and secured with an overhand knot or two.

Tying the reed is just as tough. If it is pulled too hard, it will snap. Wrapped too tight and the dumplings may not cook, or worse, they may burst at the seams when the glutinous rice expands.

Even the boiling process is a lesson in patience. It is usually done over a slow wood fire to ensure that the dumplings do not split.

Of course, you may laugh when I tell you that in those days dumplings were only available during the Dragonboat Festival.

To ask for one before the fifth day of the fifth Chinese lunar month would raise eyebrows among those brought up in tradition-steeped families.

Elders would not be shy to tick you off and tell you that only those who were eager to depart their earthly existence would desire to eat a chang earlier than its intended time. There was a time and season for all things.

Preparatory work for the dumpling festival usually started as early as a month before the celebration, with the sourcing of bamboo leaves. They had to be plucked green, wiped clean and dried in the shade for a day or two before being stored for use.

Although imported bamboo leaves were sold, we did not buy them if we could find them in the wild, along the foothills of the now-forgotten Mimaland and even as far as Genting Highlands. Only mature leaves were plucked because they could stand hours of boiling without splitting.

A wedge-like knife tied to one end of a long bamboo pole is used to nudge the leaves off the stem.

You were not allowed to fell the entire bamboo stalk to strip the leaves. This was to ensure that the bamboo would still be there for the following year's festival.

Today, dumplings are available all year round. Commercialisation has taken the bite off custom and tradition.

Visit a hawker centre any day and chances are you will find many types of dumplings being sold.

And if you wish to learn how to make some before the Dragonboat Festival on Wednesday, you will probably find just as many videos on YouTube to teach you as well.

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