The Chinese Dumpling Festival is the perfect time to plan your Malaysian getaway and indulge in one of the most delicious delicacies that can be found at any festival time. The Bak Chang or Zhong in Cantonese and Zhang in Hokkien. These are glutinous rice dumplings stuffed with various fillings, wrapped in bamboo or lotus leaves. They can be triangle shaped, square or round. But the shape doesn’t matter, they are all delicious. Just ask anyone who had been here during festival time and tried them. And they can be sweet, spicy, savory or all of the above. It all depends on who you buy them from and what part of Malaysia they have been influenced by.
About The Festival
The Chinese Dumpling festival falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, so every year it’s calculated on a different date. For 2019, it will fall on June 7th. Alternately it’s called the Double Fifth festival or the Dragon Boat Festival in Penang.
It’s believed the festival originated during the Warring States period in China, when Qu Yuan, a well loved poet, jumped into the Miluo river and drowned himself when his country fell to the enemy. The villagers jumped into their boats and raced out to find and salvage his body, hence the boat races. When they couldn’t find his body, they threw dumplings into the river for the fish to eat, so they wouldn’t eat his body.
An alternate version tells the story that the admirers of Qu Yuan dropped sticky rice bamboo wrappers into the river to feed him in the afterlife.
Though the origins of Zhong, points to Southern China, this heritage food is also well acclaimed across the Malaysian Chinese communities. The Kuala Lumpur (Cantonese speaking KL-ites) refer it as Zong, the Northern Penang name it Bak Chang in the local Hokkien dialect and the Baba-Nyonya Peranakan call this dish Chang. For the purposes of this post from here on out I’ll refer to the dumpling as the Zhong.
Some of the traditional and modern types of Zhong available are:
The Hokkien Ham Yuk Zhong (肉粽) / Bak Chang in Hokkien dialect (肉粽)
Salty Meat Dumpling typically filled with fatty pork belly marinated with five spice herb powder, salted egg yolks, dried shrimp, mushrooms and my favorite chestnuts. The glutinous rice is pre-fried with dark soya sauce to give it a dark brown colour.
The Cantonese Zhong / Lok Tau Zhong (绿豆粽)
Another savoury Meat Dumpling, favoured by the Cantonese descendants are typically filled with leaner pork meat, yellow mung beans, salted egg yolks, mushrooms and chestnuts. This version is white or paler in colour, the difference with no dark soya sauce added. Occasionally it comes in the form of a pillow longitude shape.
Nyonya Zhong (娘惹粽)
A specialty of Peranakan cuisine, the fillings are minced pork with candied winter melon, ground roasted peanuts and taucheo (Chinese soybean paste made from yellow soybeans). Traditionally the dumpling has a bit of blue rice coloured from the butterfly pea flower.
Kan Sui Zhong (碱水粽)
Literally translated as “alkaline water Zong”, this is a dessert item or a snack for tea time. The glutinous rice is treated with lye water hence the distinctive yellow color. It’s usually plain, with no filling and if there are It’s a sweet stuffing, for example red bean paste. It’s often complimented with sugar, gula melaka (Malay for palm sugar) or a delicious local coconut spread named kaya.
The Ultimate Giant Zhong (which can weigh up to 2 kg)
Savoury Meat Dumpling typically filled with fatty pork belly, duck meat marinated with five spice herb powder, roasted pork, salted egg yolks, dried shrimp, mushrooms and chestnuts. Someone once shared that it was a portion to feed and be shared amongst the family.
There are few vegetarian choices from glutinous rice, to healthy grains (of brown rice, red rice or sticky millet) with soy cubes, mushroom,chestnut and black eye peas.
The Grand Finale
This is a more modern version of the Giant Zong sold by the 5-6 stars hotels and the luxurious ingredients are its greatest prize. From Abalone, to Japanese dried scallops, to expensive quality mushrooms, various healthy and exotic rice grains, to truffles and anything that will lure the consumer to buy.
Zhong is family time
The process of making it is truly an art and takes many cumbersome steps, from purchasing the ingredients, to preparation, to frying, folding and steaming/boiling. For Malaysian families, everyone gets involved in making Zhong for the festival, and each one of us have our own role and individual strength or skill, for instance folding the bamboo leaves with stuffing and tying them up. We appreciate and respect each others’ roles, even those of the children. When I was a kid I was delighted eating Zhong after witnessing and taking part in the hours and hours of work it took to make them.
The most delicious Zhong sold around KL would be freshly homemade from generation old family recipes, which have been passed on from moms or grandmas. In my heart the best Zhong recipe by far comes from my late grandma, no one has and probably will be able to surpass that level of standard on the ‘delicious-Zhong meter.’ There are no shortcuts to traditional recipes and there are some things in life that are irreplaceable.
I attempted to make Zhong according to my grandma’s recipe a few months ago. I pulled some family members together and we got everything we needed and went to work. The outcome was a disaster. The taste, texture, everything fell short of what I was used to.
There are a few stalls that sell them throughout the year, and they’re pretty good, but I am a little biased to my family’s recipe, although that shouldn’t stop you from trying them at all. For the best Zhong however, visit us at festival time. That’s when you’ll get the classic recipes. Happy Tuen Ng Jit!
You might be able to sample a Zhong yourself when you are joining our Kuala Lumpur Street Food Tour or our Penang Street Food Tour, just ask your guide if it’s available and we’ll try our best to get you to taste one.