Hot plate of fresh zong zi, DIY apron made over a decade ago for Mom
When I was a teen, my mom often lamented that her Cantonese cooking legacy was coming to an end with my generation. I did plenty of eating but regrettably no cooking! Each time we visit home now, I make sure to request my favorites and take plenty of notes. I love experiencing different cultures through food, and would love to be able to cook my childhood favorites for my own kids. Per some of your requests, today I am sharing recipes for two dishes that always hit the spot, and can be easily modified to suit varying tastes.
Zong zi (joong): Pictured above – sticky rice mixed with goodies, wrapped in bamboo leaves. The zong are boiled gently for 3+ hours, resulting in a heavenly melding of flavors inside. The first bite of one hot out of the pot with a touch of soy sauce = blissful. My mom often reminisces about buying these as a kid for breakfast, using saved pennies at street-side vendors. I can’t eat these store-bought (usually skimpy on fillings and not cooked long enough) anymore after having ones home made with love. Zong require a lot of prep and wrapping labor, but you can make extra and freeze (after boiling) for weeks of enjoyment or gifting to friends.
Ginger scallion lobster over noodles: Living in New England, summertime means eating so much lobster that I’m afraid I’ll turn into one. Fresh ones are yummy simply boiled whole, but my all-time favorite way has to be stir-fried and served over noodles to sop up the sauce. I initially tried this back in Canton, and was a little too excited to discover the noodles underneath. The lobster is first cut into pieces, which allows the flavors to get right to the meat, plus eliminates the need for messy claw cracking at the table.
Recipes (many of these ingredients may need to be found at a larger Asian grocery store)
1. Zong Zi / Joong / Sticky rice dumplings:
Different provinces have varied filling preferences (some sweet, some savory). For traditional Cantonese savory style per my mom, I’ve noted the key ingredients below and also listed some optionals. If you’re vegetarian, I’ve heard that simple mung bean and shiitake mushrooms mixed into the rice can be yummy.
(Ratios / quantities are very approximate to make ~20 zong zi)
– 40 dried bamboo leaves*, plus a few extras in case any of them rip
– 2 lbs of white glutinous rice* (about 4.5 cups)
– drizzle of cooking oil
– 1.5 lbs pork belly (or pork butt if you don’t like the fatty part, but I can’t imagine why!)
– Five Spice Powder (in the salt/pepper aisle at the Asian grocery) for the pork
– salt to taste
– 20 dried shiitake mushrooms
– Handful of tiny dried shrimp (“xia mi”), rinsed
– 1 package peeled split mung bean*
– Cooking string to tie the zong
– Soy sauce for eating with cooked zong
*Packaging for the rice, mung beans, and dried leaves may look similar to these
Optional (the more, the merrier!):
– soaked peanuts
– shallots- salted egg yolks
– sliced Chinese sausage
– if you don’t like pork, possibly substitute marinated chicken (use boneless leg/thigh meat)
One day prior:
1) Rinse the rice and dried mushrooms. Soak them overnight in their own respective bowls.
2) Slice the pork into 1″ pieces. Lightly coat the pieces in a bowl with sprinklings of 5 spice powder and salt, or, you can use ~3 tablespoons of soy sauce, 1 tsp Shaoxing cooking wine, and 1 tsp sugar. I’ve used the latter soy marinade after reading a compilation of online recipes, but my mom insists on the former dry seasoning.
The day of (edit: made some corrections here per Mom):
1) Rinse and soak mung beans for at least 3 hours before use.
2) Boil bamboo leaves until softened (about 5 minutes), and rinse.
3) Drain soaked rice, mushrooms, and mung beans. Slice each mushroom into 2-3 pieces. Mix drained rice with the dried shrimp, about 2 teaspoons of salt, and 3 tablespoons of oil.
Wrapping & cooking:
1) Start with two leaves, shiny side up (this will be the side touching the rice & fillings), half overlapping.
2) With one hand holding each side of the leaves, fold both ends up and criss-cross at the center, so that the middle of the leaves form a cone. The tightness of the pointy cone tip is key to avoid leakage. Hold the cone in one hand using a good grip, not to let go until the folding is done.
3) Fill cones, starting and ending with the rice. I like to encase the pork with a few spoonfuls of mung bean, and use several shitake pieces per zong. Try to use the filling evenly, but if worse comes to worst you’ll just have either plainer or super-packed w/ goodies zong towards the end.
Little brother Schuyler only likes pizza & burgers, tsk tsk…he doesn’t appreciate Chinese food just yet!
4) Fold down the leaves as shown above to seal your zong. It doesn’t need to be pretty – as long as the rice grains can be contained securely inside. The hand holding the cone also serves to grip folded leaves in place. Use your other hand (and possibly teeth for leverage) to tightly tie a string, first left-right and then top-down, around the leaf packet.
Zong-making is a family activity. Over the years, Nick has become an efficient wrapper of various Asian goodies.
5) Place into a large pot (or 2) and cover with water. Bring to a boil and then turn down to a simmer (lower, but still boiling) for at least 3 hours. You may need to add hot water to ensure that all of the zong are fully covered.
After boiling, take one out to taste with a dash of soy sauce. The sticky rice should be nice and glutinous, almost becoming one with the smooth mung bean (now paste-like) and pork. If this is not the case, boil the other ones for a little longer. A main difference between these and nuo mi ji/lo mai gai (the sticky rice packets at dim sum), is that zong are boiled for hours and those are quickly steamed.
2. Chinese-style lobster over noodles:
The traditional Cantonese recipe requires coating the lobster pieces and frying first – my mom is now health-conscious and avoids this step, and the outcome is just fine. She suggests sautéing in a pan with a lid, so the steam trapped inside can help the lobster cook evenly without getting tough.
– Ratios below are for ~1.5 lbs of lobster (one small one or half a biggie), chopped into segments
– oil for cooking
– 1.5 inch hunk of ginger, peeled and thinly julienned
– 4 stalks of scallions, julienned and separated into white and green parts (I loove scallions and always use a little extra for garnish)
– 1 tablespoon soy sauce
– 1.5 tablespoons Shaoxing cooking wine or sherry
– 3/4 cup either water or chicken broth
– 2 teaspoons cornstarch
– salt and Chinese white pepper to taste
– 1/3 pound of linguini or noodles of your choice
This recipe is super simple if you can find someone else cut the live lobster for you. I found out most American grocery stores don’t offer this service (guessing Asian ones won’t have a problem), but did luck out with a nice guy behind the counter willing to take on the task. Have the tail cut into 3 pieces, and claws and knuckles separated and “cracked” with a mallet for easier de-shelling later on.
If you are too squeamish to do this with a live lobster yourself (as I would be), you can try working with just lobster tails from the grocery store!
If your lobster was chopped in-store, rinse each piece thoroughly upon getting home. Try to have similar-sized pieces to aid in even cooking. The “brain-like” stuff in the body is the liver, which I personally like and keep, but know most ppl get grossed-out by. Season the exposed meat of the lobster with a little salt and white pepper.
1) Boil noodles per the package directions and drain (it’s ok to leave a little pasta water to help lessen the sticking). Pour into a large plate.
2) Heat your frying pan w/ lid over medium-high heat. Coat bottom lightly with oil.
3) Drop in lobster pieces, and flip over after the color changes to red on one side. Add in ginger, the white parts of scallions, soy sauce, and wine. Sauté together for about two minutes.
4) Combine 1/4 cup water or chicken broth with the cornstarch until well-mixed, and set aside. This will be a thickener for the sauce, to be poured in near the end. Pour the other 1/2 cup of water or chicken broth in all around the pan, stir, and close the lid.
5) Let simmer for a few minutes with lid shut, then check the lobster. The lobster is done when the centers are white and meaty instead of grey and “gummy.” Do not overcook!
6) When the lobster is almost done, pour in the reserved liquid & cornstarch mixture and stir on medium heat until the sauce thickens. Add the green parts of the scallions and sauté quickly. Taste the sauce – season with salt and white pepper if it’s lacking, or dilute if necessary. Good lobster doesn’t need much seasoning, and the fragrant ginger & scallions usually carry this dish. If the sauce doesn’t thicken enough for your liking, mix a little more cornstarch into a bit of cold liquid, then pour in (do not sprinkle powdery starch directly into the pan or it will get clumpy) and taste again. Remove from heat and serve hot over the bed of noodles.
My mom & I each made our own variation using half of a 3-pounder, which made for a very happy & full dad this Father’s day. Her dish used pretty much the same ingredients, except chopped fermented black beans and garlic instead of the ginger – delish!
I’d love to hear your personal variations on these dishes, or if you end up trying either of the recipes!