This Year for Dragon Boat Festival, I Was Determined to Learn How to Make Joong
As my mother-in-law taught me how to wrap and tie the dumplings, I couldn’t help but reflect on how important family recipes are.
Growing up, I always associated the month of June with the ending of the school year and making joong (as it’s known in Cantonese; in Mandarin, it’s zonzgi). Joong are bamboo leaf-wrapped sticky rice dumplings filled with a combination of savory and flavorful goodies. They're traditionally eaten during Dragon Boat Festival in China, which, as legend tells it, commermerates the poet Qu Yuan, who sacrificed himself to the sea as his country was in turmoil. Villagers were so moved, they prepared joongs so the fish will be well fed and let hero’s body rest in peace.
My parents and grandmother would clear out of the fridge drawers and fill them with an assortment of joong they received from friends, relatives, neighbors and even colleagues. My siblings and I would struggle digging through the generous pile for ones we prefer. We often searched for the ones with mung beans, dried shiitakes and luscious five spice-marinated pork belly. My grandmother would explain to us that the way the joong were tied was how to tell them apart. In a way, it was like figuring out a game of cat’s cradle and if you were lucky enough to win, you would find your favorite. To heat them up, we would place them on a rack in a wok and steam them until they were fully heated through. Then, I would drizzle a small amount of light soy sauce and enjoy the dish bite by bite.
Fast forward to today — I was determined that this would be the year that I learned how to make joong. Perhaps it was all that time spent cooking during the pandemic that had me craving old-school, time-consuming recipes. Or maybe becoming a mother has encouraged me to preserve family recipes to be shared with my daughter. Unfortunately, my grandmother is now too old to teach me and for a recipe like this, you need the hands-on experience. I consider myself fortunate that my mother-in-law is from a village that is close to my grandmother’s in Toisan, China. She has been being making joong her whole life with her grandmother, and the flavors are almost identical to ones I remember fondly. We blocked off a Saturday afternoon and my joong master class began.
Before the big day, I did a lot of preparation. I researched various ways to tie the dumplings, and I shopped and prepped all the ingredients. But there was one thing I wanted to teach my mother-in-law that day. Instead of doing a traditional 7-10 hours (yes, hours) over the stovetop, I wanted to use an Instant Pot. Since my recipe would yield a fraction of what she and her friends would make for Dragon Boat Festival (they’d make a batch of 200+ over a couple days!), I wanted to achieve the same iconic texture and flavors with a 1-hour cook time. When I shared this suggestion with her, she was thrilled!
We started with all our ingredients lined up on the kitchen island with a big stack of hydrated bamboo leaves. When my mother-in-law made the first one, it all happened to quickly. She really had to hold my hand to show me the correct way to fold the leaves, being careful of their sharp paper-like edges as they started to dry. Her specific technique is to layer each ingredient and spread them out, so each bite has the perfect combination of everything. This was a clear sign of her half-century of experience. And of course, the tying. She kept saying that the butcher’s twine had to be super tight because the glutinous rice will expand and try to find any possible seam or corner to escape while cooking. However, it couldn’t be too tight that it would cause the leaves to rupture — ultimately a reason to start all over. The first few that I made were uneven, fully exploded and did not have the five corners that represented my mother-in-law’s village. She explained that the corners are a silent giveaway of which part of China you are from. Toisan joong always had 5 corners. I felt that it was very important to get this right; I wanted to represent her and my own grandmother well.
After wrapping a batch, I set up the Instant Pot and placed the joong in one by one. I felt confident that they would work since I have adapted many family recipes to work with an Instant Pot, (check out Mama Chan’s Oxtail, for instance). As we waited for the joong to cook, my mother-in-law wanted to make another batch. It was just us in the kitchen, and we had so many conversations about food and her upbringing in Toisan. Not to mention, I was getting better at it, and we formed a mini assembly line. Just when we were finishing up our last two, my toddler daughter woke up from her nap and joined us. It was such a treat to see my mother-in-law hold her little hands as she stood in her kitchen tower and tied the butcher’s twine around the final joong. I couldn’t help but notice how special and meaningful it is for this recipe to have been passed on by multiple generations from what seems like a foreign place (but is really where it all began). From that moment, I understood the importance of capturing traditional recipes and making them as a family. My daughter might be too young to remember this year, but I know she will have many more food memories ahead of her.
Once the timer went off and we let the joong rest for another 45 minutes, it was finally time to taste the fruit of our labor. First, we snipped the butcher’s twine off, and then one by one the leaves were removed from the dumpling. We were greeted by a sticky aromatic bundle of perfection! We drizzled a little light soy and went in for a taste. It was exactly how I remembered it after all these years. My mother-in-law cheered in victory and the rest of our family members joined us for a bite. They all agreed that this was very successful!
To take a family recipe, make it together, and then find a way to make it easier without compromising on any of the flavor or integrity of its original form is what I strive for. I’m so glad I was able to make this work with an Instant Pot so we didn’t have to babysit huge stockpots for many hours, like my mother-in-law would do. Not only did it make her small home extremely hot, especially in the month of June, but she’d also have to refill the pots with water to prevent them from burning. This new way to make joong will give grandma time to spend with her only grandbaby — and share a meal she’s enjoyed her whole life with her own grandmother.