When eating sticky rice dumplings is all about family

The 'kansui zung', infused with alkaline water, was a childhood favourite. — Pictures by CK Lim
The 'kansui zung', infused with alkaline water, was a childhood favourite. — Pictures by CK Lim

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COMMENTARY, June 15 — It’s about family.

Folks will tell you that the Dragon Boat Festival (which was yesterday) is obviously about the dragon boat races, the churning of arm muscles and the crashing of oars in the water.

Others will tell you that the Duen Ng Jit (or Double Fifth Festival in Cantonese), which falls on the fifth day of the fifth month in the Chinese lunar calendar, commemorates the death of a famous poet who drowned himself in a river.

Most of us celebrate — in our guilt-free gluttony — the very food offerings that the poet’s admirers threw into the river in hopes the hungry fish would eat those and leave the poor poet’s body well alone.

They offered sticky rice dumplings, of course, what my Cantonese family calls zung. And so, for me, the tradition of eating zung every year is all about family.

As a kid, the kansui zung was my favourite as you can dip it in fragrant, rich kaya or sprinkle granulated sugar. The smaller tetrahedrons have no filling, you see, so such sweet embellishments were entirely necessary (or so my five-year-old self would insist).

Sticky rice or glutinous rice is what binds the ingredients together, just like familial bonds.
Sticky rice or glutinous rice is what binds the ingredients together, just like familial bonds.

The larger specimens tend to conceal treasures within, usually a trove of red bean paste, its sweetness contrasting with the almost soapy flavour of the glutinous rice infused with alkaline water (or kansui in Cantonese, hence its name).

Years later I would detect this same taste in the lye washed Brezen (Bavarian pretzels) in Munich and springy ramen noodles in Tokyo. And I would think of  kansui zung and of my carefree childhood.

Perhaps there’s a zung for every stage of our lives.

When I was a student far away from home, it was the Nyonya zung that I missed the most. Being in Munich meant that even if I could find some sticky rice dumplings in Chinese restaurants, it would invariably be the yuk zung (fatty pork rice dumplings) that my palate hadn’t yet developed a taste for yet.

The sweet and savoury Nyonya 'zung' is all about balance.
The sweet and savoury Nyonya 'zung' is all about balance.

A proper Nyonya zung, I soon realised, was an entirely Malaysian delicacy, something deeply Malaccan and Peranakan in origin. Sure, I am Cantonese by way of my paternal line, but what folks ate in Hong Kong or Guangdong weren’t really what I grew up eating in my family.

Whether it’s the influence of my hometown or some Peranakan blood thanks to my paternal grandmother, I have always associated sticky rice dumplings with a Nyonya zung.

Never too sweet (though likely far too sweet for those unused to its charms) yet intensely savoury too, a Nyonya zung is about balance. The honeyed notes of dried winter melon, the succulent mince that is neither too fat nor too lean, the vivid burst of blue from butterfly pea flower extract — the random ribbons of colour making every dumpling as unique as a snowflake.

‘Hunting and harvesting’ butterfly pea flowers for its natural blue colour, to make Nyonya 'zung.'
‘Hunting and harvesting’ butterfly pea flowers for its natural blue colour, to make Nyonya 'zung.'
Glutinous rice coloured with butterfly pea extract.
Glutinous rice coloured with butterfly pea extract.

Perhaps I would always associate a Nyonya zung with a tasty reward after a morning of helping my mother “hunt and harvest” the fresh blossoms of butterfly pea flowers growing “wild” all over my taman in Malacca.

Strange how the notion of heritage never bothered me when I was younger; these days I relish and grow ever the curiouser about the parts of me that are Cantonese and Peranakan and Hokkien. The sticky, glutinous rice is what binds the ingredients together, just like familial bonds.

As adults, we borrow the taste of our partners and our spouses. (We have to, if only to keep the peace.)

I finally understood the appeal of the yuk zung or what my mother, who is Hokkien, called Fukgin zung in our household. My maternal grandparents, of course, just called it bak chang back when they were still alive.

Filling and folding every sticky rice dumping is a labour of love.
Filling and folding every sticky rice dumping is a labour of love.

It’s about coming full circle when your better half is also Hokkien, just like your mother, and whose favourite zung is the bak chang. The sticky rice dumplings your mother and grandparents grew up eating and that you now appreciate through the lens of love.

Sticky grains of glutinous rice, the fatty morsels of pork belly, the golden orbs of oily yolks from salted duck eggs, the umami from dried prawns and dried mushrooms, and the sweetness of chestnuts.

Rice and meat, fat and sweet — all the good things in life.

And that is all we want for our loved ones, for our family to have the best in life. And for us to grow closer as the years pass even as we move further apart in distance. May we stick together, may our bonds deepen, while we have time left as precious coins to spend.

The rich and substantial 'bak chang' has become a new favourite in later years.
The rich and substantial 'bak chang' has become a new favourite in later years.

Is there anything more sobering than realising your father is now older than his father when your paternal grandfather died, that your mother will have spent more years on this earth than her mother, your maternal grandmother?

How many more years do my parents have left? It’s hardly morbid when they remind me of that too; we are a pragmatic family if nothing else.

We can’t travel to see each other right now but when things are safer, I will bring some zung home — some kansui zung and some yuk zung; the Nyonya zung I will get in my hometown, naturally — and my parents will chide me for the unnecessary expense.

Unnecessary perhaps but absolutely essential. We will sit down to a simple meal after steaming the sticky rice dumplings in the wok and debate which ones taste the best. Which parts of our lives we remember the most. And how excited we are for the days yet to come.

For more slice-of-life stories, visit lifeforbeginners.com.

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