Summer Season with Spice - Traditional Zongzi Rice Dumplings (Bak Chang 肉粽)

Traditional Zongzi Rice Dumplings (Bak Chang 肉粽) recipe by
Summer may never end in Penang, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t keep pretending every year that it begins.

So we kick off the summer season every year with a festival. One of the smaller festivals in Penang, but it incorporates the main ingredient – eating.

Around this time every year - the fifth day of the fifth lunar month to be exact – Chinese people celebrate the Duanwu Festival 端午节, also known as the Dragon Boat Festival.

The festival is officially only one day, but it starts a few days before in the kitchen, where only the most determined take on the challenge of cooking up traditional rice dumplings called ‘zongzi’, or ‘chang’ in Penang Hokkien. Like many traditional Chinese foods made during festivals, zongzi is based on folklore (for the story and additional details on Duanwu Festival, please see my article on Capturing Penang).

Made of glutinous rice that is stuffed with various fillings, zongzi are available in savoury & sweet versions, wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves into a triangle shape. The most common zongzi in Penang are the meat filled versions called 'bak chang'.

zongzi bak chang hanging on a street cart at chowrasta market in georgetown penang
Zongzi for sale at Chowrasta morning market in Penang
Making zongzi is a messy, demanding job. It’s no surprise that more and more people are buying zongzi instead of doing it themselves. Fortunately for me though, my mom is a very dedicated cook, and she just happens to make the most delicious zongzi.

Last year alone she made 200 dumplings for relatives and friends, proving again not only her gift in cooking, but also her love for those around her.

siam thai zongzi for sale at chowrasta morning market in penang
how to soak bamboo leaves for making bak chang?

My mom’s version of bak chang - the traditional pork-filled rice dumpling – is filled with fatty pork pieces, salted duck eggs, mushrooms, chestnuts, dried shrimps, Chinese sausage, peanuts, black eye beans, preserved radish, and...

where to buy pok oy thong chinese five spice powder in penang?

...the secret seasoning - Chinese Five Spice, a popular spice blend used in Chinese cuisine.

Mom uses the special blend from Pok Oy Thong 博爱堂, an established Chinese medicinal hall in Penang with a long history of Chinese herbs and spices. The formula is a variant of Chinese Five Spice, with the label listing ingredients of cassia, fennel seeds, cardamom, clove, star anise, nutmeg seed, peppercorn, coriander seeds and lime zest.  The smell is sweet and enticing, and I could add it to any meat dish I’m cooking.

When preparing the bak chang, the mixture is tossed in the wok in generous amounts when cooking the meats and glutinous rice.

how to fry pork for zongzi
what ingredients to add to bak chang

Most of the ingredients are stir-fried before Mom mixes the ingredients inside the bamboo leaf. Once the leaf is filled just right, she wraps it up firmly and ties it tight with twine (trust me, the wrapping is not easy). The bamboo leaf will impart a faint tea aroma into the rice. Finally she boils the wrapped dumplings for four hours per batch. To make 200 zongzi, she spends the entire weekend in the kitchen.

Are you ready for this kitchen adventure?

how to wrap zongzi bamboo leaves step by step
how long to boil bak chang
Traditional Zongzi Rice Dumplings (Bak Chang 肉粽) recipe by

Traditional Pork-filled rice dumplings (bak chang, or rou zongzi 肉粽)  by Season with Spice

Bak chang are made in large batches because of the many ingredients involved and the long process. This recipe has been measured for one dumpling, so please multiply accordingly for the number of dumplings you want to prepare.

The basic:
1/3 cup of glutinous rice, washed, soaked overnight and drained
2 bamboo leaves, cleaned and soaked overnight

1- 2 small chunks of lean pork meat
1 small chunk of fatty pork
1 - 2 small chunks of chicken meat
1/2 egg yolk from salted duck egg
1 dried mushroom, pre-soaked until soft (slice in half)
1 thin slice of Chinese sausage
1 chestnut
1 tsp of preserved radishes (chai por)
some peanuts
some black eye beans
some dried shrimps
garlic, diced
shallots, diced

Seasoning (to taste):
Chinese Five Spice
Soy sauce
Dark soy sauce for color
Sesame oil (for fragrance, add in last when stir-frying)
Oyster sauce
White pepper

Day 1
1. Clean and wash the glutinous rice and soak it overnight. Same process for the bamboo leaves.

2. In separate bowls, marinate pork meat & chicken meat with Chinese Five Spice, soy sauce, dark soy sauce, oyster sauce and white pepper for a few hours (or marinate in refrigerator if preparing the night before).

Day 2
Stir frying (cook each step separately)
1. Heat oil in a wok. When it is ready, fry some diced garlic until aromatic. Add the marinated chicken meat and chestnut. Season with Chinese Five Spice powder. Add a little bit of water and cook for about 5 minutes on medium fire. Add sesame oil and coat well quickly.

2. Same process as above to cook pork. Add mushrooms to cook with the pork meat.

3. Stir fry the black eye beans with 1 tbsp water (no oil is needed).

4. Stir fry peanuts without oil for about 5 minutes until crunchy.

5. Heat two tbsp oil. Stir fry the shallots until fragrant and it turns a light golden brown.

6. Heat one tbsp oil. Stir fry garlic and dried shrimps until fragrant.

7. Heat oil, stir fry garlic until aromatic. Add the glutinous rice and cook with all the seasonings above on low-medium fire. Add very little water to prevent the rice from drying. The rice should take about 10 minutes to cook. Taste and add in more seasonings if needed.

1. Layer two bamboo leaves in your palm – smooth side up (and cut off the rigid stems).

2. Form a cone using the top of the leaves, making sure the tip of the cone is sealed.

3. Add two to three spoonfuls of rice.

4. Add the rest of the ingredients inside, and then top with additional rice until the cone is almost full. Be sure to leave a small gap so the rice will have room to expand.

5. Fold the remaining part of the leaf over the top of the cone and wrap tightly around the dumpling. Then tie a piece of string around it tightly to make sure it keep together while boiling.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil, and then adjust the flame to low. Place the wrapped bak chang into the water, making sure all are fully submerged. Cook uncovered for 3 hours, and then cover the pot and cook for one additional hour.

Drain the water and then enjoy your comforting, savoury zongzi while it is still hot!

1. The best way to savour bak chang is to have it first as a snack (try it with a little bit of chili sauce), followed by a bowl of asam laksa - an iconic sour spicy fish-based noodle dish from Penang. Lastly, clean your palate with a cup of hot green tea. At least this is how we do it at home. Heaven!

2. Except the glutinous rice, seasonings, and pork or chicken, you can remove any of the ingredients listed to still make a delicious bak chang.

3. You can keep cooked bak chang in the refrigerator for one week to enjoy them slowly. When you are ready to eat, just reheat the dumpling by steaming it for 5 - 8 minutes until hot. Serve immediately.
Traditional Zongzi Rice Dumplings (Bak Chang 肉粽) recipe by
Traditional Zongzi Rice Dumplings (Bak Chang 肉粽) recipe by
Nyonya Chang and Kee Chang Zongzi

Mom's other versions of zongzi - the mini Kee Chang with coconut & palm sugar sauce and Nyonya Chang with a spice blend of anise seed and coriander powder