SIMPANG AMPAT (Penang), June 10 – As a Malaccan, my go-to rice dumpling (or zongzi) has to be the sweet and savoury Nyonya zhang, tinged with the natural blue of butterfly pea flowers and riddled with morsels of dried winter melon.
The health conscious foodie might prefer a millet rice dumpling with shiitake mushrooms while others a Cantonese version pairing mung beans with salted egg yolks.
For those with a sweet tooth, the golden hue of a kee chang or alkaline water rice dumpling filled with red beans will tantalise.
These are but some of the traditional, homemade delights by Tan Ai Beng, the 56-year-old creator of Ming Rice Dumpling. Born in Taiping and now based in Simpang Ampat, she learned how to make rice dumplings from her mother when she was only nine years old.
Tan recalls, “I first learned the basic preparation from my Lou Ma Ji, which is what my siblings and I called our mother in Cantonese, such as how to clean the bamboo leaves, cut shallots and separate the white rice from the glutinous rice.”
That last task was a surprise. Tan shares, as though confiding a culinary secret: “Did you know the glutinous rice we find in the market nowadays is mixed with a lot of white rice? Glutinous rice releases a larger amount of starch when cooked. This extra starch makes rice sticky unlike white rice.”
Yet Tan didn’t expect to turn her zongzi making skills into a business, not since she moved to Penang in her twenties. Her family is currently in the wedding industry, which has been hit hard by the pandemic and movement control order (MCO).
Not one to wallow in self pity, Tan was inspired by her mother’s sterling example through tough times.
She says, “Lou Ma Ji was an independent and powerful woman, with five sons and three daughters. She started this rice dumpling business in Taiping. At that time, our family was so poor and all of us had to help her after school.”
Lou Ma Ji’s rice dumplings were legendary in Taiping for their maker’s perfectionism, something that has rubbed off on her daughter. Fast forward many years and Tan’s children persuaded her to revive the rice dumpling making, to bring back their grandmother’s beloved recipe.
Tan shares, “One night, while we were having a simple chit chat after dinner, I started to reminisce how happy it was last time when making rice dumplings together with my siblings. Even though it’s not easy and pretty tiring, but those moments are precious. My children told me we should preserve the culture and recipe, so more people can try our rice dumplings.”
And thus Ming Rice Dumpling – an online and delivery-based, traditional homemade rice dumpling business – was born. Tan is responsible for the cooking while her children take care of the administrative aspects such as the website, customer service and purchasing.
Tan’s signature product is her popular Hokkien Rice Dumpling or bak chang. Made from a recipe that is over half a century old, each bak chang contains glutinous rice, fresh pork, dried shiitake mushrooms, dried shrimp, chestnuts, salted egg yolk and a “secret sauce” that has been passed down.
Every rice dumpling requires a lot of attention, Tan shares. “Did you know they have to be cooked for more than 14 hours? First of all, we must get the freshest ingredients which are locally sourced and then these need to be properly prepared.”
Her approach is to “cook it like you are going to feed your kids so each ingredient must be cleaned thoroughly.” Roping in her family members to help with the preparation, Tan would conduct spot checks and if the results are not up to her standard, she would reject them and her children would have to start the cleaning from scratch again!
Tan adds, “We only use the freshest pork from our butcher and marinate the meat right away with our delicious secret sauce. The glutinous rice must be stir fried with shallots and the secret sauce has to be fragrant.”
Sounds like a lot of steps. But it isn’t over yet. Tan insists that the most crucial stage to determine whether the rice dumplings will turn out well is actually the wrapping with bamboo leaves.
“Too tight, and the rice dumpling will be too compressed. Too loose, and your ingredients will fall out when cooking in water,” she cautions.
There are plenty of rice dumpling makers out there, of course, so Ming Rice Dumpling hopes to stand out by committing to only 100 per cent natural and fresh ingredients. Tan says, “You can taste the flavour of our rice dumplings as though we cooked in front of you. No preservatives, artificial flavouring and colouring, and MSG at all.”
Ming Rice Dumpling’s strategy isn’t to try and please everyone, however. Tan says, “Some people might ask for abalone or double salted egg yolk inside a rice dumpling. For us, it’s all about ‘just nice’ – when you put too much meat, it will become too meaty and you can’t taste the flavour of rice.”
Times have changed and traditional food artisans have to adapt or be left behind. Tan understands this all too well as she has seen first hand the shifting demand and customer expectations.
She recalls, “Lou Ma Ji sold rice dumplings in the market. It was easy. Customers order on the spot, they pay and you just need to put their rice dumplings in a plastic bag and they are good to go. After the MCO, we have to be more careful with aspects such as hygiene, logistics, food quality, etc.”
Every rice dumpling is individually vacuum packed. Tan explains, “This way, it is cleaner and safer. With that, we can ship to the whole West Malaysia and preserve the freshness of the rice dumpling.”
A self professed perfectionist (just like her Lou Ma Ji), Tan insists that the packaging is aesthetically pleasing. The Standard Gift Set is shaped like a pyramid, mirroring the shape of the rice dumplings, while the Premium Gift Set comes with a handmade rattan basket and Peranakan furoshiki wrap.
She says, “It’s about how my customers receive our rice dumplings. No matter whether you choose the standard or premium gift set, each one is Instagrammable and presentable to give to your loved ones.”
Clearly there have been more challenges of late. Ming Rice Dumpling has risen to the occasion: from the aforementioned vacuum sealing to the beautiful packaging. Every step is carefully managed to ensure the dumplings are safely delivered to their customers.
As a value add and a very human touch, Ming Rice Dumplings also writes messages to the recipients of their zongzi by hand. Tan enthuses, “The world needs more love during this pandemic. Not just the box to put our rice dumplings, we also specially designed a carton box just to fit the gift box for the courier service to ship out the gift set.”
Each little detail builds upon another. Even wrapping the gift box is an act of care and precision. Tan says, “We have to wrap each one properly so our customers can receive the gift box in perfect condition.”
For Tan, the Dragon Boat Festival is all about family reunion. She explains, “It might be different from what others think but there was a lot of sweat and tears behind it. I really hope we can preserve this tradition and let more people know about this delicacy.”
And in less than a week’s time, the festival will be over (though Ming Rice Dumpling operates all year round), but the lessons that Tan and her family have gained building a new business during a global crisis will last a lifetime.
“Some people will complain about the MCO, but we think everything happens for a reason. We have learned a lot during this pandemic and we take it as a chance to grow.”
Beyond growing as a family and a business, what is perhaps the sweetest chapter to Tan’s story is that now the legend of her Lou Ma Ji continues too, hopefully for generations to come.
Ming Rice Dumpling
Tel: 019-475 9318