A quintessential Chinese delicacy, Bak Chang makes an appearance every year during the Dragon Boat Festival. These triangle dumplings are made with glutinous rice and a special filling. Typically a savoury festival treat, Bak Chang varies regionally. Even within the Malaysian Chinese community, there are many types of this popular dish.
What is Bak Chang?
Also known as zong zi in Mandarin, Bak Chang is pyramid-shaped rice dumplings, wrapped in bamboo leaves – sometimes lotus, reed or even banana leaves – and are packed with glutinous rice with tasty fillings at its core. Fillings can include a combination of lean meats, minced pork or chicken and mushrooms. The dumplings are usually steamed or boiled and served with chilli sauce on the side.
In Chinese communities that celebrate Duan Wu, or also known as the Dragon Boat Festival, preparing Bak Chang is often seen as a family tradition and ritual, with elders guiding and teaching the younglings the tedious and careful steps of wrapping, filling and tying a Bak Chang.
History of Bak Chang
Traditional Chinese delicacies often come with legends and stories dating back to ancient China, and the Bak Chang is no different. The story started during the Chu Dynasty, where a famous poet named Qu Yuan was unfairly exiled for trying to warn the King and the palace of an invasion of a neighbouring kingdom.
After unsuccessful attempts at stopping the invasion, it was said that Qu Yuan became depressed that he drowned himself in the Milou River. The people of the Chu Dynasty were so overwhelmed with grief and guilt. To recover his body, they started throwing packets of rice into the river, hoping that the fish would feed on them instead of Qu Yuan’s body.
The packets of rice, was, of course, the Bak Chang we know and enjoy during the Dragon Boat Festival as a way to commemorate the famous patriotic poet.
Variations of Bak Chang
Like the other distinctive Chinese dishes, Bak Chang is varied. Each Bak Chang tastes different depending on the ingredients used, as it resonates each Chinese dialect groups in Malaysia. For example, the Hokkien Bak Chang’s looks darker and is generally more aromatic because of the five-spice powder, salted egg yolk, chestnuts and dried shrimps used in the fillings.
The Cantonese Bak Chang, however, is meatier at its core with lean meat, pork lard and Chinese sausages as its main filling. The combination of various meats coupled with mung beans and glutinous rice makes the dish a savoury delight compared to its counterparts.
Hainanese Bak Chang is known to be more prominent in size because of the size of the fillings used. Generally, it’s packed with shiitake mushrooms, fatty pork belly and chestnuts, alongside the glutinous rice.
Nyonya Bak Chang, on the other hand, is perhaps the most colourful out of them all, thanks to the blue-ish hue in the glutinous rice. A result of the butterfly pea flower, which is usually added during the process of making the rice, the dumpling is also sweeter because of the candied winter melon that acts as a special ingredient.
Lastly, Kee Chang is smaller in size as compared to its bigger siblings. It carries a yellowish and slightly transparent look. Unlike the others, it does not contain any meat fillings, only glutinous rice that has been pre-treated with lye water to colour the dumpling beautifully.
Where to Find Bak Chang in Malaysia
As a seasonal dish, Bak Chang is most common during June and July. But as with many delicacies that become commercialised, you can also find Bak Chang at morning markets and pasar malams, sold by Chinese elders.
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