Meet Hong Kong’s 84-year-old queen of Dragon Boat rice dumplings
Great-grandmother Tai Lin, who has been making the leaf-wrapped delicacies for decades for her 30 family members, shares her recipe with us
Despite her advanced age, Tai Lin is very busy these days making rice dumplings for her extended family of over 30 people. One of the walls of her small Sai Wan Ho flat is covered with pictures of her seven children, 13 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
“They all love to eat my rice dumplings so I make them every year. This year I’ve made them several times already since there are so many family members to give them to. I gave a few to my oldest son and he and his family ate them so quickly that I gave him more,” she says with a smile. How much can I eat myself? I make them for my children.”
Watch Grandma Tai making rice dumplings
The 84-year-old sets out the mahjong table in her living room with a plastic container of bamboo leaves that have been boiled to make them more malleable, as well as pre-soaked glutinous rice, halved salted egg yolks, peeled mung beans, and pork seasoned with five-spice and Shaoxing wine.
As Tai is Hakka, she explains they like to have more ingredients in the filling, and adds a mixture of dried shrimps, shallots and crushed peanuts that give more flavour and texture.
She gathers two leaves together, one overlapping the other and then puts a handful of rice in the middle, pats it down to flatten it, then adds the filling and the tops it off with more rice.
Wrapping the dumpling is the crucial part of the dumpling – if it is too loose, the ingredients will fall out. Tai first folds the top part of the leaves towards her, then the bottom part, both ends folded tightly into the centre.
She cuts off extraneous bits of leaves before wrapping the dumplings very tightly with grass strands. She winds the grass several times around the body of the dumpling before twisting it and then tying it up. A habit after making rice dumplings for decades, Tai lightly pats each one before putting it in a basket and reaching for the next pair of leaves to make another dumpling.
When Tai was growing up, everyone helped out making rice dumplings, with recipes and techniques passed down the generations. But when asked if any of her children know how to make them, she replies, “They don’t know at all. They only know how to eat them.”
Around the fifth day of the fifth month on the lunar calendar, many families in Hong Kong gather to make rice dumplings similar to Tai’s, using handed-down family recipes.
Rice dumplings are eaten around Dragon Boat Festival, or tuen ng jit, (duan wu jie). The legend related to the festival commemorates the death of Qu Yuan, who was a Chinese poet and minister for the ancient state of Chu during the Warring States period.
He was also known as a patriot, but when the king decided to ally with the powerful state of Qin, Qu was banished for opposing this, and was even accused of treason. The story goes that Qu threw himself into the Miluo river.
When the villagers found out what he’d done, they raced into the river to try to save him, and threw rice dumplings into the water to prevent the fish and evil spirits from eating his body.
Since then we have always marked the event with dragon boat racing and eating rice dumplings.
There are different kinds of zhong or rice dumplings eaten during Dragon Boat Festival.
Most commonly found in Hong Kong are the pyramid-shaped ones that are savoury, usually containing pork, salted egg yolk, pork and mung beans.
More decadent are the large pillow-shaped rice dumplings that may include gourmet items like abalone, Chinese mushroom and conpoy as well as salted egg yolk and pork.
Rice dumplings from Taiwan are similar to Cantonese, with pork, mushrooms and dried shrimp, but may also include peanuts, black-eyed peas or chestnuts.
Shanghainese rice dumplings are considered more flavourful because the rice is marinated in soy sauce, while the filling typically features fatty pork.
Not all rice dumplings are savoury. Long narrow ones are typically sweet, usually glutinous rice mixed with red bean paste.