Joong: Chinese Tamales
Chinese people are making joong this time of year during the Dragon Boat Festival. Joong are glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves. There are sweet versions, but they are not as popular as the savory ones which will be described in this blog. I grew up watching my grandmother make them. She knew the ingredients that I liked in my joong and made a few special ones for me which were distinguished by shaping them a little differently. Today my grandmother is ninety-three years old and doesn’t have the strength and dexterity to make joong anymore. Lucky for us, she has her home caretaker keep up with the tradition and I was there to help document this. Grandmother supervises.
Bamboo leaves can be purchased in Chinatown, but when you bring them home, they have to be soaked for about three days. This is the most time consuming of all the steps. They have to be washed with water, lemon, and salt; and then rinsed over and over.
The ingredients inside the joong varies. Depending on the area of China of the maker, the fillings may be different. That is the reason that when I grew up eating them, I would only eat the ones my grandmother made or the ones given to us by our relatives. I guess you can call it “toisan joong”. Toisan is my dialect which is spoken in Southern China where my family is from. The base of all joong is sweet glutinous rice which is washed and seasoned with salt. Our joong would have salted duck egg yolk, lop chong (Chinese sausage), fatty pork, peanuts, and dried shrimp. This combination of ingredients add great flavor.
While the cleaning of the bamboo leaves is most time consuming, wrapping joong takes the most skill. Starting out with two layered leaves you fold them in half and then bend about half of the side to form a pocket. You would first add some of the uncooked rice, then add each of the ingredients, and top it off with more rice. Using one more bamboo leaf, layer it on top of the joong and fold over. Taking the end of the leaves fold it down tightly to form a three dimensional triangular shape. Take some string and wrap it to secure the joong. While it might take me ten minutes to wrap one and not look tight and perfect, an expert can wrap one under a minute and have it look perfectly.
The joong will be added to a pot of boiling water and covered completely. They need to be cooked in boiling water for about 4 hours, so it’s important to have additional hot water close by to add to the pot as needed. About halfway through the cooking, it’s best to try to move the joong around in order to cook evenly.
When ready, remove the joong from the water and they are ready to enjoy.