Zongzi for Beginners: How To Make Rice Dumplings and 5 Recipes to Try at Home
Jun 20, 2020

Zongzi for Beginners: How To Make Rice Dumplings and 5 Recipes to Try at Home

Come June 25, celebrate with rice dumplings of all kinds - traditional, vegetarian, keto, no-pork and a bluepea dessert one for Dragon Boat Festival

As the world bakes on in these pandemic months, emptying supermarket shelves of flour, sugar and eggs, we urge you to turn your gaze to rice, soy sauce and salted egg yolks instead. That’s because come June 25, these ingredients (and a few more) will make delicious zongzi, or rice dumplings for Dragon Boat Festival.

Before you start, 

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View our guide on How-To Wrap Rice Dumplings. A tip: You might want to have extra bamboo leaves on hand when wrapping as they may tear easily, particularly if you’re new to this. For those outside of Asia who might not be familiar with rice dumplings, you’ll likely find them sold at the local Chinatown. And if you’re thinking of making one, the typical ingredients of sticky rice, dried shiitake mushrooms, peanuts, Chinese sausages and the bamboo leaf wrapping can be found in most Chinese grocery stores, or online. 

Now pick a recipe,

Here, we look at traditional and trendy ones made across Asia today, including five recipes that you can dig into at home. There’s the classic Hokkien zongzi stuffed with pork belly and salted egg yolk, a keto-version that substitutes glutinous rice with cauliflower crumbs, a healthy mixed-grain one and even one for dessert. Happy feasting!  

1. Traditional Hokkien Zongzi with Pork and Salted Egg Yolk

A classic, comforting zongzi, the Traditional Hokkien Rice Dumpling is widely eaten by Chinese communities around the world, and more so in the Hokkien Chinese dialect group of Penang, Taiwan, and in Singapore. It’s a deep brown glossy pyramid of savoury glutinous rice stirred with aromatic soy and oyster sauces – the essential Chinese flavours that give it its dark hue. The stuffing is mostly savoury, with pork belly, creamy salted egg yolks, umami-rich mushrooms, dried shrimp, or hae bee hiam, and just a touch of sweet whole chestnuts. But it is time-consuming to make, requiring hours. From start to end, you use a multitude of cooking methods that includes soaking, marinating, stir-frying, steaming to the final step of wrapping (which is in itself another process). In our recipe though, you get at least 5 dumplings at the end, with each one making a satisfying meal on its own.

Another well-loved zongzi is the Cantonese rice dumpling. It is considerably simpler compared to the Hokkien rice dumpling, both in its ingredients and method. The most noticeable difference is in its shape, which can come in a variety– long and tube-like, rectangular, and triangular. The stuffing is simply savoury mung beans, pork belly marinated in five-spice powder, salted egg yolks and mushrooms. Some dip it in sugar to balance its saltiness and intense aroma from the “heavy” ingredients. Others like it plain or dipped in soy sauce.

2. No Pork Beef Rendang Zongzi

For those who don’t eat pork, consider using beef instead. For this rice dumpling, we’ve made an intensely saucy, Indonesian-inspired Beef Rendang Zongzi. Regular glutinous rice is mixed with long-grain basmati rice and stir-fried with earthy, herby rendang flavours. That’s curried turmeric, sharp ginger and galangal (used frequently in Southeast Asian cooking), creamy coconut milk and the heat of chilli padi. The rest of the steps are the same, steam and wrap tightly. To save time and energy, we’d also recommend using a blender to speedily blitz up all the spices. If you haven’t got this useful appliance, here’s some common ones to consider.

Most traditional rice dumplings are made with pork. These days though, otah (spicy fish fillet) rice dumplings, and chicken stuffed ones are fast becoming popular. In 2019, zongzi chain Joo Chiat Kim Choo launched Halal dumplings in two options, Nyonya Chicken and Salted Chicken. In Singapore, you can get them conveniently at 7-11. It’s easy to eat too, just pop them in the microwave and peel away the plastic wrapper.

3. Mixed Grain Vegetarian Zongzi with Brown Rice and Oats 

It’s not just meat that makes a dumpling tick. Vegetarian rice dumplings are delightful too, and even healthier. Brown rice substitutes glutinous rice for a more nutritious, nuttier taste, and instant oats is added to give the zongzi bits of crisp, crumbly, crunchy textures in each bite. But if you’re not a great fan of the sometimes chalky texture of brown rice, you can keep to regular white rice. Creamy yam, umami-packed mushrooms and sweet chestnuts will still infuse the whole thing with complex, aromatic flavours. Plus, the typical zongzi sauce base remains the same, with soy sauce and vegetarian oyster sauce used for a rich salty taste. In all, this all-vegetarian, brown rice dumpling will be suitable for those watching their health.

Mixed-grain dumplings, including those using chia, quinoa and barley seeds have also made way into the menus of top hotels and big-chain restaurants. Singapore Fullerton’s Jade Restaurant offers vegetarian dumplings made from five types of grains including millet and oats, and fake meat or omnipork, a soy and rice-based blend, retailing at SGD 9. Popular Cantonese-chain Crystal Jade also launched its all-vegetarian purple quinoa rice dumpling, with red and black beans, chestnuts and mushrooms at under SGD 8.  

4. Dessert Rice Dumpling with Coconut and Sweet Potato

Beautifully blue, our Dessert Zongzi with Coconut and Sweet Potato is a creamy, indulgent sweet treat. It reminds you of an Ondeh-Ondeh, the pandan-flavoured glutinous rice balls filled with gula melaka (palm sugar). You might want to share one after meals, or eat a little less during mealtime. That’s because you’ll need some stomach space for this bluepea flower-stained zongzi that is soaked with rich flavours of coconut milk, gula melaka (sweet palm sugar), soft sweet potato and a trace of fragrant pandan. Makes 5 dumplings, but even one is recommended for sharing.

You may know of the bluepea flower, an easy-growing backyard garden flower famous for its light blue tint. It’s used to colour many kuehs, such as Kueh Salat, Nasi Kerabu- a variation of nasi lemak, and the famous blue-tinted Nyonya Zongzi, which is commonly eaten among Singaporean and Malaysian Chinese. The rice dumpling is a little sweeter than other traditional ones, with the inclusion of candied winter melon.

5. Keto Nyonya Cauliflower Rice Zongzi with Chicken

If you’re on the Keto diet, or want to cut carbs, consider this Keto rice dumpling. Ketonians would be familiar with using cauliflower to replace rice, and here, we’ve used it just this way to make a lip-smacking stir-fried Cauliflower “Rice” Dumpling with Chicken. Tinted blue from the juice of bluepea flowers, this Keto Nyonya Zongzi is seeped with the natural sweetness of cauliflower, grated into fine “rice” grains, then thickened together with psyllium husk - a common keto thickener. The rice’s part done. For the inside, it’s filled with stir-fried garlicky, Chinese five-spice marinated chicken, and the oceanic taste of scallops and shrimps. We’ve also used chicken thigh instead of leaner chicken parts as thigh contains higher fat content, a key element of keto-dieting. The diet’s also known as the low-carb, high-fat “fat-burning diet”.

Celebrating Dragon Boat Festival

Spectators cheer rowers as they prepare to race in Hong Kong's annual Dragon Boat Festival

Dragon Boat Festival, which falls on June 25 this year, remembers the death of Chinese Warring States poet Qu Yuan, who drowned himself in a river after his country's capital was seized. After learning of his death, villagers dropped rice dumplings into the river in hopes that the fish would not feed on his body. Today, it’s a celebration marked by the eating of zongzi, and intense dragon-boat shaped races across rivers in Malaysia, China, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong. This year though, all races were cancelled because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Thankfully, there’s still rice dumplings to celebrate.

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