Grandma Hsiang's Chinese Tamales
Grandma Hsiang’s Chinese Tamales
Makes 12 Zongzi
Zongzi, often referred to as “Chinese tamales,” are traditional sticky rice bundles stuffed with treasures like cured pork belly, juicy Chinese sausage, salted duck egg yolks, or dried baby shrimp and scallops—all beautifully wrapped in aromatic bamboo leaves like a present. This is my maternal grandmother’s perfect streamlined version of the treat sold by Shanghainese street food vendors. She likes to feed us zongzi, saying, “You young people are so skinny and too busy to eat.”
I now realize that she learned how to make zongzi only after she moved to America and grew homesick for the beloved comfort foods of her childhood. There’s nothing that causes homesickness—or perhaps soothes it—more than the smells of food from home. So to feed her nostalgia, she learned how to cook zongzi for herself, and to this day, at 99 years of age, my grandmother still makes these edible gifts for my mom and her five siblings, along with her myriad lucky grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
For The Filling:
5 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
1 1-inch piece cinnamon stick
2 star anise pods
1 teaspoon five-spice powder, homemade (recipe follows) or store-bought
2 pounds pork belly, cut into 1-inch cubes
For The Zongzi:
3 cups uncooked sweet glutinous rice
24 dried bamboo leaves
3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
6 shallots, sliced
12 fresh shiitake mushrooms, thinly sliced
Make The Filling: In a large bowl, combine the soy sauce, rice wine, cinnamon stick, star anise, and five-spice powder. Add the pork belly and stir well. Then cover the bowl with plastic wrap and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours or as long as overnight.
Prepare The Rice: Put the glutinous rice in a large bowl and add cold water to cover. Let it stand at room temperature, covered, for as long as 2 hours.
Rinse the bamboo leaves and soak them in a bowl of hot water for 30 minutes. Drain and set aside.
Drain the rice and return the grains to the bowl. Add the soy sauce and stir to combine. Set aside.
Heat the vegetable oil in a medium skillet over medium heat, add the shallots and mushrooms, and fry for 3 to 4 minutes, until softened and lightly colored.
Assemble The Zongzi: Place 2 bamboo leaves, overlapping, on a clean surface to make a 5-inch-wide piece. Fold 2 to 3 inches of the stem inward to form a straight edge. Cup the rectangular end in your hand, and place 1 tablespoon of the rice in the “cup.” Spread the rice out about 3 inches toward the leaf tip.
Remove the meat from the marinade. Place 2 pieces of meat directly on top of the rice, and add 1 tablespoon of the shallot-mushroom mixture. Spread 2 tablespoons of the rice over the meat so it is completely enveloped by the rice. Bring the other side of the leaf over the rice-filled cup to enclose it. Wrap a 2-foot-long piece of kitchen twine several times around the middle of each zongzi, tying it off with a knot, so the rice won’t escape during the cooking process. Repeat with the remaining bamboo leaves, rice, and filling.
Place all the zongzi in a large pot, and add water to cover by 1 inch. Cover the pot and bring to a boil; then reduce the heat to low and cook the zongzi for 3 hours. (Make sure there is enough water to cover the zongzi at all times, adding more as necessary.) Transfer the cooked zongzi to a plate and let them cool slightly.
When you are ready to eat, cut off the string, unfold, and dig in!
The cooked zongzi can be kept in the refrigerator for a week, or frozen for months. Simply thaw the zongzi if they are frozen, and steam them for about 10 minutes or until heated through.