The wonderful thing about Singapore is the availability of a diverse range of foods. The country is very modern but traditional foods and customs from its Chinese, Malay, Indian and Peranakan heritage abound. No time is this more apparent than at festival time … and because there are four official religions, it is always festival time.
It is Duanwu now and Chinese rice dumplings are everywhere. Sometimes made at home, oftentimes made for sale by specialty shops, the dumplings are handmade, shared and eaten as snacks and ‘light’ meals.
If we were having coffee … I’d invite you to have the last of my stash of bak chang. I have three types: Nonya, Hokkien and Kee. My favorite is the Kee which is also called crystal chang. It’s delicious with gula melaka and heady with the scent of pandan and bamboo leaves.
What is bak chang?
Bak chang is the Hokkien word for sticky rice dumpling. It is also called zongzi in Mandarin and joong in Cantonese. In the US it’s sometimes called Chinese tamale but that’s just wrong – let’s not refer to it as that. These pyramid shaped, leaf wrapped dumplings show up in Chinese shops and eating houses every year around June. It is a celebration food for the Duanwu festival and Dragon Boat races.
Chinese legend goes that when the beloved scholar Qu Yuan committed suicide by throwing…
If we were having coffee we’d be looking at the gift of mangosteens from my hubby’s tennis friend. It’s an old, familiar Chinese tradition, to bring gifts of fruit when visiting. When I was young, my Aunties used to do it and depending on whether they were shop keepers or gardeners, I’d have little treats of imported grapes or homegrown mangoes. It’s a cordiality of friendship that I’d almost forgotten while living in Canada.
Outside of birthdays and Christmas, Westerners do not typically exchange gifts. In fact, a business colleague once told me how uncomfortable he was when his Chinese employee kept giving him little gifts or souvenirs from her vacations abroad. I remember feeling similarly dismayed in Beijing, when direct reports gave me elaborate gifts for Chinese New Year and Harvest Moon Festival. US corporate policy promptly stopped the business habit. I hear that in newly reformed China, it…
I mentioned that I have a new hobby? I’m still at it.
Having baked and eaten several loaves of chewy homemade bread I began to wonder why Asian breads are so different. One of the reasons why I started experimenting is that it’s so hard to get ‘regular’ bread in Singapore. Forget about regional Jamaican specialities. Boules, sourdoughs, baguettes are impossible to find.
Let me qualify that.
Specialty breads are impossible to find at reasonable prices. European and artisanal breads can be bought but it’s at places like Paul’s Boulangerie, where they fly in specially milled flour and charge exhorbitant prices. My neighbourhood has bakeries galore but they all make Hong Kong style breads. Light and fluffy, the breads are pillowy soft, have an ephemeral crumb and are always slightly sweet.
A little research uncovered a technique called the TangZhong method which originated in Japan but is widely used in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. It was first publicized by a Chinese author, Yvonne Chen who introduced it in her book ‘The 65º Bread Doctor’. The technique involves cooking a flour and water roux and adding it to the dough during mixing. The science behind the roux has something to do with gelatinizing flour and its subsequent hydration effect. After a little bit of YouTubing and a whole lot of Googling, I decided to try PastryGirl’s Hokkaido Milk Bread on her Desserts First website.
TangZhong breads have half as much flour as a Basic Bread recipe and the technique calls for twice as much kneading. Many recipes recommend using a bread maker or upright mixer for the heavy kneading. However, my under-powered Oster upright was not up for the job. After 20 minutes the machine began to overheat and I could smell traces of burning metal. I scraped out the dough and spent the next 20 minutes developing my biceps. For the final proof, I folded rolls into two regular pans and gave them a finishing glaze of egg wash. It resulted in a beautiful, brioche looking bread.
The taste was lovely – just like the breads in the better Hong Kong style bakeries. I’m not sure if it was the tangzhong or the 40 minutes of kneading, but the bite and chew was definitely lighter and more tender. The tangzhong articles say that the roux keeps the bread moist with a longer shelf life. So far, my breads haven’t had a problem with shelf life (they don’t hang around long enough) but I can say that these rolls were just as delicious the next day.
It’s an interesting thing, this tangzhong method. It got me thinking about another hard to find bread from Jamaica, the eponymous Hardo bread. A non-verified source says that the Hardo was introduced to the island by Chinese bakers. The distinction of Hardo is its resilient, fine grained crumb and its ability to keep fresh over a long period. My French born husband would argue with the ‘resilient’ attribute. He’s described hardo as heavy and brick-like; solid enough to build houses with.
Notwithstanding, the connection between the bread and Chinese baking is intriguing. Maybe that will be my next project.