Armchair Travels: Shortcuts to Making Bak Chang

GEORGETOWN, 5 June 2020: Pearly Kee is a food ambassador for Penang, and a culinary rebel. The Nonya (a Straits Chinese lady) turns her back on mortars and pestles for blenders, uses a dehydrator instead of relying on the sun, and buys, rather than cooks, her own BakChang.

But the cookbook author remembers very well how to make a mean glutinous rice dumpling. Squatting down to scrub bamboo leaves clean for a good six hours isn’t something one forgets easily—even if it has been 25 years since.

Packing a dumpling according to one’s own preferences.

Growing up in a Straits Chinese household, which, more likely than not, made the best BakChang in town, Pearly had a good supply of dumplings through the year. Sometimes she ate four at a go. She was a kitchen assistant to the matriarchs at home, but honed her skills only at the classes with a local Baba (a Straits Chinese man) and master chef, Datuk Lim Bian Yam.

Before she started giving cooking lessons from her home in 2006, Pearly took dumpling orders from family and friends to supplement her income. It went on for more than 10 years, until she decided it was more sensible to pay, and let others labour instead.

BakChang, according to legend, derived from rice stuffed in bamboo that was fed to the river fish, so that they would leave the remains of the loyal Chinese court official Qu Yuan alone. Although elaborate and challenging to make, it has become symbolic to eat BakChang on Duanwu.

Pearly stocks more spices than a household would need for the class she conducts.

Hpaper Team visited Pearly at the semi-detach house she shares with her husband, to bring her out of her retirement from making BakChang, and to teach us the recipe. Even when juggling four burners that are processing different ingredients, the gregarious lady does not forget to dish out cooking tips: “Add more seasonings because they will be diluted in the boiling water. You fry the yolks to firm them up, so they don’t fall apart inside the BakChang. Add split green beans to take away the saltiness of the yolk.”

Then, she slips in a code of conduct for cooks: “We don’t criticise other people’s food. We impress upon people to cook.” She has forsaken traditional methods for more efficient solutions, so that cooking would still be relevant to modern lifestyles. Until Pearly or someone else discovers a more efficient way of making BakChang, there is at least her recipe that will keep this traditional dish alive.

Have Your Convenience And Eat It

A pyramid-shaped Cantonese dumpling (right) and a Hokkien variety (left) from Cintra Food Corner.

If time or the hot weather forbids sweating out in the kitchen, there are old establishments in Georgetown selling BakChang that are worth your entire daily calorie allotment. For regional varieties, go to the 78-year-old Cintra Food Corner. Besides the most common kiamchang, from Fujian province, there are pyramid-shaped Cantonese dumplings seasoned with salt and lard, and a Hakka variety where the black eye beans, chestnuts and pork belly combines to demonstrate the true elegance of simplicity.

Ms Chan and her sister now run the business that their mother, Feng Yi, started in 1975.

Feng Yi’s dumplings have textures that witness the culinary prowess of their producers. They are moist and soft but the grains distinguishable and still firm to the bite—a balancing act even seasoned cooks cannot achieve. The wholesaler that started business in 1975 opened their first retail store last year, an effort of the second generation to promote their mother’s (affectionately known as Aunt Feng) brand. They have been very selective about their ingredients, even specifying to their supplier the number of days their duck eggs should be salted. No wonder the yolks melt in our mouths.

WHERE TO STAY:
Hard Rock Hotel Penang – Malaysia’s first Hard Rock Hotel. With the largest free-form pool, and many activities lined up through the day, you’ll be sure that you’re not going to be bored.

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