Editor's note: Serious Eats reader and author of food blog More Than Just Cooking Joyce Lee offered to share her love of these traditional Chinese glutinous rice-based tamale-like dumplings called joong (Cantonese) or zongzi (Mandarin) in anticipation of the upcoming Double Fifth Festival during which joong is traditionally eaten. The festival is on June 6, so you have a few weeks to get ready. (Admittedly, it's not quite enough time to brine your own duck eggs—this editor takes full blame for the timing fail—but you can buy those pre-made.) And if you've never had joong before, give it a try!
When I was a kid, my mom chastised me for running in the house, but I'd run even faster towards the kitchen when the fragrant smells of her savory joong filled the air. I couldn't wait to dig into the fat, pillow-shaped Toisanese joong the size of my dad's hand.
My mom's joong are hefty bundles filled with lightly salted glutinous rice, studded with split mung beans, and generously stuffed with delectable slabs of cured pork belly, juicy slices of salty-sweet Chinese sausage (Cantonese: lap cheong), golden, creamy orbs of salted duck egg yolks, pungent dried baby shrimp, and flavorful shredded dried scallop all snugly wrapped in aromatic bamboo leaves and tied with string. I anxiously watched her joong boil in a large pot of water on the stove, waiting for the time to pass when each ingredient melded together to create a delicious package.
She only made joong during the Double Fifth Festival, also known as the Dragon Boat Festival, which fell on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month in the Chinese lunar calendar (this year's festival lands on June 6). The fact that she prepared joong only once a year made them even more special. My mom always made enough joong to feed an army, but unfortunately half were earmarked for the annual exchange between our relatives and friends.
I didn't like it when someone else's joong came into our house. Not that I was a picky eater, but her friends' joong (and some of our relatives') just didn't cut the mustard. Some made their joong with just plain, unseasoned pork, or—even worse—only lean pork, or in wee palm-sized bundles that were too small to be a meal by itself. The greatest tragedy of all: the joong with no salted duck egg yolk. A salted duck egg yolk is a happy, tasty, gloriously rich ball of sunshine bringing deliciousness to my day. The disappointment of eating a joong and not finding a salted duck egg yolk is like going to bed expecting no school from a forecasted blizzard then waking up to just rain. My mom's joong never disappointed me.
Variations of Joong
As I got older, I learned there are many regional variations and different family recipes for joong (Cantonese; joong;; Mandarin: zongzi; Taiwanese: bah-tzang; Toisanese: doong). Typically, joong are considered a homemade food and not something found in restaurants or fine dining. Joong are the gastronomic highlights of Chinese rustic food at its best. There is no one standard joong recipe, but what they all have in common is the basic bundle of rice, stuffed with a filling, wrapped in bamboo leaves and then cooked. A few regional style of joong are:
Cantonese: Raw glutinous rice seasoned with salt, mixed with split mung beans and stuffed with salted duck egg yolk, sliced lap cheong, cured pork belly, dried shrimp, and dried shiitake mushrooms then boiled.*
Nyonya (Chinese in Malaysia): Raw glutinous rice colored blue with butterfly pea flower (Malay: bunga telang) and stuffed with sweet candied winter melon, peanuts and pork seasoned with a spice paste featuring coriander, ginger, shallots, and garlic. Pandan leaves may be added in the filling or as part of the outer wrapping in order to enhance the fragrance before the final product is boiled.
Shanghainese: Raw glutinous rice seasoned with soy sauce, dark soy sauce, rice wine, star anise, five-spice powder, and cinnamon, stuffed with fatty pork, then steamed.
Taiwanese: Pre-cooked regular short grain rice or raw glutinous rice seasoned with soy sauce and stuffed with a mixture containing stir fried shallots, dried shrimp, dried shiitake mushrooms, seasoned lean pork and fatty pork, and peanuts, then steamed or boiled.
(Please note these are overviews because, as mentioned above, every family will have their own recipe.)
* The dried scallops in our family's recipe are my mother's substitution for the dried shiitake mushrooms. For a treat, my father likes to add Chinese-style roasted pork (Cantonese: siew yook) to make the joong extra special (aka the supreme porky joong, aka The Robyn Lee joong).
How to Make Toisan-Style Joong
Every region and every family has different methods and recipes for making joong. My parents are from Toisan (Mandarin: Taishan), a coastal city in the Guangdong providence of China. I am sharing my mom's joong recipe with you; her joong is a variant on the Cantonese style. This is her recipe that I learned by watching her make joong each spring and pestering both of my parents with many questions. (In our household the rule is watch first; hands-on training comes later.)
Rest assured that joong are not complicated to make—the most critical ingredient is time. You will need some planning and a bit of work. It seems daunting at first, but don't worry! Once your joong are done, you'll understand why people greatly appreciate receiving these tasty bundles—they really are a labor of love. I recommend making these as part of a group because it's a great way to spend time together and to ensure you have plenty of help assembling and wrapping the joong.
How to Form Triangular Joong
In my recipe I show you how to form joong into rectangular bundles. To see how the triangular shape is formed, watch the video below.
About the Author: Joyce Lee's love of food began in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., with her parents and their Chinese-American take-out. Her food obsession then took her to gastronomic mecca of NYC. She believes instant ramen is comfort food and that a milky iced coffee is her oxygen. When she's not chowing down in the ethnic eateries of Queens, she hustles for a major Fortune 500 firm.