Last Saturday afternoon at Macy’s Union Square in San Francisco, I wrapped my first Chinese rice tamale ever — before a standing room-only crowd.
I couldn’t have done it without the good cheer and great instruction from Executive Chef Alexander Ong of the popular Betelnut restaurant in San Francisco.
Though I’d grown up eating these glutinous rice tamales stuffed with pork belly, mung beans and salted duck egg yolks, I’d never made one myself.
But what better time to try my hand at it than last weekend, when the San Francisco International Dragon Boat Festival took place off the waters of Treasure Island.
The rice tamales (known as joong in Cantonese or zongzi in Mandarin) are the food most associated with the sport of dragon boating, which originated more than 2,000 years ago in Southern China.
According to legend, a popular poet and statesman was wrongly accused of treason. So despondent was he that he committed suicide by jumping into a river. Local fishermen, who admired the statesman, paddled out in their boats to try to rescue him to no avail. They beat drums and threw rice dumplings into the water to try to scare away fish and sea dragons from his body.
Yours truly even competed on dragon boat teams for years in the Bay Area. I even still have my trusty paddle, which I brought to Macy’s to demonstrate the aggressive rowing motion it takes to propel a dragon boat in a race.
Twenty paddlers sit side by side down the length of a boat that has a dragon’s head at the front and its tail at the back. You row to the beat of a drummer who sits at the head of the boat. A race takes about three minutes. And believe you me, three minutes have never seemed so long.
Then, it was on to making the joong, the tamales of soft, gooey, custardy rice. Normally, these glutinous rice tamales have a big piece of fatty pork hidden inside its center, as you know how the Chinese love their succulent pork. But since Kaiser Permanente sponsored the cooking demo (ahem), Chef Ong decided to make a more healthful version — with roasted portobello mushrooms instead. Shhh, he did sneak a few pieces of pork belly and Chinese pork sausage into a few of the joong — just for tradition’s sake. At his restaurant, he’s even made them with a filling of foie gras. Oh my!
The tamales are wrapped inside dried bamboo leaves that are soaked in water overnight to make them pliable. It does take a few tries to get the method down just right so that the filling doesn’t end up leaking out during the cooking process.
But believe me, if I can do it, anyone can.
It’s kind of like origami, with the leaves folded this way and that, before the entire “package” is tied with kitchen twine to ensure a tight seal.
Ong has provided helpful two video links below that describe the folding method better than any written text could.
Try your hand at making a batch. And enjoy a delicious taste of Chinese tradition.
The photos pictured here were taken by Ben Seto, one of my former colleagues at the San Jose Mercury News, who now works for Kasier and blogs at the wonderful CookingWithTheSingleGuy; and by Barry and Eva Jan, regular attendees at the Macy’s cooking events. Just put your cursor over any photo to see the captions and credits for each.
Chef Alexander Ong’s Roasted Portobello Mushroom “Joong”
(Makes about 20 pieces)
For the rice:
3 cups long grain sweet rice
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
For the stuffing:
1 pound portobello mushrooms, cleaned, dark gills removed and cubed
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon minced ginger
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons low sodium soy sauce
2 tablespoons oyster sauce (non-MSG type)
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/2 tablespoon black pepper, freshly cracked
3 tablespoons water
40 pieces dried bamboo leaves, soaked in warm water overnight
4 pieces lop cheong (Chinese sausage), cut in half lengthwise and then cut into 6 pieces
To prepare the rice: Rinse rice in water two to three times. Drain excess water. Place rice in a bowl, add 2 teaspoons kosher salt and 2 tablespoons vegetable oil.
To prepare the filling: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix portobellos, vegetable oil, ginger, garlic, low sodium soy sauce, oyster sauce, brown sugar, black pepper and water in a bowl. Place mixture on a roasting pan lined with parchment or foil (for easier clean-up). Roast in the oven for 20-25 minutes. Cool, then strain any liquid that has accumulated.
To assemble the joong: Since it’s so difficult to explain in writing how to fold the leaves around the filling to form the tamales, the only way to really understand how to do it is to watch someone do it. After a few trials and errors, you will get the hang of it.
Here are a couple of video links, illustrating two different methods of wrapping joong:
This is the Cantonese-style of wrapping joong.
And this is the Singaporean/Malaysian method, which I remember my family doing.
Once you assemble the joong, place them in a big pot of boiling water and simmer for about two hours. You may have to replenish the water in the pot periodically. Once cooked, the joong can be unwrapped and enjoyed as is or with soy sauce or chili sauce. Once cooled, the cooked joong also can be frozen in an airtight bag in the freezer. Thaw in the refrigerator, then heat in a steamer.
Recipe by Chef Alexander Ong of Betelnut in San Francisco