Making Rice Dumplings At Home

4 July 2022

In today’s homemaking diary, I take you along with me as I make rice dumplings at home. It is a wonderful way to celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival and the arrival of summer. If you’d like a glimpse into how I prepare this traditional festival food, keep reading…

The Harbingers of Summer

In my mind, rice dumplings are inextricably linked with summer in Hong Kong. Rice dumplings are eaten to celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival, which usually occurs in late May or early June. As a result, just as daffodils are the harbingers of spring in New Zealand, rice dumplings are the harbingers of summer in Hong Kong.

Making rice dumplings at home is a lengthy process. To make the process more manageable, I like to spread the work over three days.

Day 1: Marinate Filling

Rice dumplings can be savoury or sweet, and they can contain a variety of fillings. For this batch of rice dumplings, I’m making savoury rice dumplings filled with five ingredients:

  1. Marinated pork belly
  2. Sautéed shiitake mushroom
  3. Salted egg yolk
  4. Preserved sausage
  5. Hulled split mung beans

The filling is an important component of a rice dumpling. As the rice dumpling cooks, the glutinous rice will become infused with the savoury flavours of the filling encased within it. The success of the dumpling—in terms of taste—hinges on the careful preparation of the filling.

The first filling that I need to prepare is the pork belly. I cut the pork belly into generous chunks, taking a moment to admire the pretty marbling of the meat as I work. In Chinese, pork belly is called wuhuarou, which translates to five-flower meat. This poetic term shines a spotlight on the beautiful variegated patterns that characterise pork belly.

After portioning the pork belly, I season it, making sure not to forget the two secret ingredients that give the pork belly its distinctive umami flavour. The first secret ingredient is five-spice powder, which adds warmth and sweetness; the second secret ingredient is time. The pork belly gets tucked into the fridge, where it will marinate for two days.

Day 2: Soak Leaves, Grains, Legumes and Mushrooms

The next session of work centres around cleaning and soaking ingredients. There are four ingredients to work with today: bamboo leaves, glutinous rice, hulled split mung beans, and mushrooms.

First, I prepare the bamboo leaves that will be used to enclose the rice dumplings. The bamboo leaves, which are sold dried, need to be washed and rehydrated. Each leaf gets a gentle sponge bath and a trim with kitchen shears before it is transferred to a large basin of water to soak overnight. In the same basin, I also place a bundle of straw, which will be used to seal the dumplings.

Washing and soaking bamboo leaves is an engrossing task. The leaves, which look and feel somewhat like parchment, have a pleasantly rough texture that crackles as I clean it. And then there is the scent. Within minutes, the leaves release an earthy aroma that turns my tiny Hong Kong kitchen into a forest bathing oasis.

When it comes to preparing bamboo leaves, I have one piece of advice: wear gloves. Dried bamboo leaves can feel sharp and scratchy, and gloves protect your hands from these hazards. In my home, wearing a pair of food safe nitrile gloves is the best way to prevent panicked yelps from punctuating my otherwise zen-like at-home forest bathing experience.

After the bamboo leaves have been dealt with, I turn my attention to the glutinous rice and mung beans. I measure and rinse these ingredients, then I place them in large bowls of water to soak overnight.

The last task is to rehydrate the dried shiitake mushrooms. I place the mushrooms in a container of water and leave them to plump up overnight.

Day 3: Wrap and Cook Rice Dumplings

Like a child on Christmas Day, I always wake up early on dumpling wrapping days.

While I cook breakfast, I finish preparing the dumpling ingredients. I slice and sauté the shiitake mushrooms, quarter the salted egg yolks, and slice the preserved sausages. I also drain and season the grains and legumes.

After breakfast, I turn my dining table into an assembly line. I set out the ingredients, put on a pair of gloves, sit down at the table, and begin wrapping.

To make each dumpling, I take two bamboo leaves and twist them to create an inverted cone. I add the rice and filling, fold the leaves over, and wrap a five-foot-long length of straw around the rice dumpling. The final step is to tie a strong knot to keep the rice dumpling intact.

Rice dumplings come in different shapes and sizes. Some are shaped like square or triangular pyramids, while others are shaped like pillows. I fall into the triangular pyramid camp; I find the tetrahedral shape both nostalgic and beautiful.

Once all the dumplings have been wrapped, I transfer them to a pot of boiling water. After two hours, the cooked dumplings are placed on a rack to cool. I serve some of the dumplings for dinner, and the rest are frozen.

Wrapping Rice Dumplings is Poetry in Motion

The process of making rice dumplings is long and intricate, but it is one that I enjoy. The challenge of packaging the ingredients into neat tetrahedral parcels feels more like play than work, and at the end I am left with a freezer full of rice dumplings to enjoy throughout the summer.

Wrapping rice dumplings involves an investment of time, and it seems fitting to dedicate part of this time to remembering the folklore associated with the Dragon Boat Festival. This festival commemorates the poet Qu Yuan, and as I wrap my rice dumplings, I think about his work; a synchrony that lends extra meaning to this seasonal homemaking task.

To end this post, I leave you with a loose translation of one of Qu Yuan’s well-known and evocative couplets, drawn from his poem Li Sao:

Though the road is long,
I will travel far and wide in pursuit of my ideals.