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 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 falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month in the Chinese lunar calendar. 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, and some joong were just wee, palm-sized bundles, too small to be a meal by themselves. 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, and 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, but they're 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 styles* 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 very bare bones 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 dried shiitake mushrooms. For a treat, my father likes to add Chinese-style roasted pork (Cantonese: siew yook) to make the joong extra special (a.k.a. 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, which is a variant on the Cantonese style, with you. I learned this recipe 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.)
Joong aren't complicated to make—the most critical ingredient is time. You'll 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.