SINGAPORE: It’s 5am and the neighbourhood is fast asleep, but 68-year-old Koh Peck Hiang is already bustling about her kitchen. The smell of garlic and five-spice powder fills the air as she begins stir-frying glutinous rice that has been soaking in water since 3am.
The long toil ahead in the kitchen is an annual ritual for the homemaker, whose Chinese rice dumplings or bak chang are well-loved and oft-requested by family members and friends.
“I can make about 500 to 800 bak chang every Dragon Boat Festival,” she said. “My family is Teochew. But my friends say they taste more like Hokkien dumplings.”
Mdm Koh has been cooking since the tender age of five – helping her mother make Chinese cakes or kueh for sale was how their family of 10 had survived in those lean years. The bak chang they made back in those day was very different, she recalls.
“My mother used meat from the pig’s head - the cheapest type,” she said. “She would cut a small mushroom into 10 pieces and use just one piece. You couldn’t even chew on it!”
That’s a long way from the fat chunks of pork belly that Mdm Koh deftly places in a bubbling bed of dark soya sauce to braise. Then she reaches for the ultimate decadence - the large bottle of Martell cognac on her countertop.
“It’s very fragrant after you add this,” she said. “I add it to everything that has an odour to mask it.”
WATCH: Her way of making it (3:36). Get the full text recipe here.
COMPETING ORIGINS, CONTRASTING TASTES
The tradition of eating Chinese rice dumplings during the annual Dragon Boat Festival – which this year falls on May 30 – has been practised for centuries, but its precise origins remain unclear.
Most Singaporeans would be familiar with the legend of Qu Yuan, an advisor and poet in ancient China who was said to have committed suicide by throwing himself into a river. The locals rushed out in their boats, beat drums and threw rice dumplings in the river to prevent the fish from eating his body. His death is commemorated every fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar.
But there are other stories as well. In parts of Zhejiang, for instance, the festival is celebrated in honour of Cao-E, a young maiden whose father had drowned in a river. A filial daughter, she drowned herself to join him in death.
Like these legends, the rice dumplings from the various regions in China vary just as widely. And it’s reflected in the different styles of bak chang enjoyed by the dialect groups in Singapore.
For example, the Cantonese bak chang is known for its bean paste filling, and the Hokkien version for its use of dark soya sauce in the glutinous rice.
The Nonya bak chang, however, is a creation unique to this region. “Our forefathers came down from China to Southeast Asia,” said Mr Edmond Wong, corporate social responsibility director at Kim Choo Kueh Chang. “And because they couldn’t find chestnuts or shiitake mushrooms, they would have used local ingredients.
“While traditional rice dumplings are meant to be savoury, the Nonya dumpling is sweet, because we use wintermelon.”
REINVENTING TRADITIONAL RECIPES
This spirit of improvisation appears to have been passed on to the Singaporean home cooks of today who still make bak chang.
Take homemaker Felicia Ng’s recipe, which she describes as a cross between the Hokkien and Teochew style – but using the cut of pork belly more commonly used in kong bak pau (braised pork buns). Said the 51-year-old:
“I have tried the traditional way, but my husband really loves my kong bak, So he said, why don’t we try using it? And it was really more tasty.”
Senior manager Teo Ek Thong, 54, has broadly stuck by the Teochew bak chang recipe he learnt from his mother – but he uses much more five spice powder.
Mr Teo, whose ancestors came from Swatow, describes his mother’s recipe as “100 per cent Teochew style”. She used less soya sauce, black sauce, salt and five spice powder as the dumplings were meant to be consumed a day after they were boiled, when the flavouring had “gone into the rice”.
But these days, to get the full flavor without having to wait, he uses a “very scary” amount of five spice powder. To make 300 dumplings, he said, “I asked my wife to buy 500 grams, and the shopkeeper was asking why she needed so much”.
Mr Wong isn’t surprised that home cooks are experimenting, and sees it as a good thing. “Some people say it’s not good to bastardise the dish,” he said. “Singapore is largely a migrant society… We came together to this place, and then we assimilated with the local culture.
“Every household should be able to say that their family recipe chang is authentic. Households should be free to experiment on their own.”
FROM ACT OF LABOUR, TO ACT OF LOVE
For Mdm Koh, the changes in her bak chang recipe tell the story of how her family’s economic circumstances have transformed.
The eldest daughter of eight siblings, she started cooking at age five out of necessity. Her physically-frail father was unable to do much work, so she was the main assistant to her mother, who made a living selling kueh on the streets. Mdm Koh recalled:
“After giving birth, she wrapped a handkerchief around her forehead and went right back to work. She didn’t even go to sleep at night.
If she stopped making (kueh), we wouldn’t have food to eat.”
But it was during the long, hard hours in the family kitchen that her own love for cooking grew as well.
“I loved observing what she did,” Mdm Koh said. “I would ask, ‘Ma, how much salt did you put exactly?’ and she would say, ‘Agak-agak (more or less) lor!’ So now when I cook, everything is agak-agak as well!”
A shrewd businesswoman, her mother knew she could never afford to buy huge amounts of high-quality ingredients. So she would focus on her technique to make her dishes delicious.
“People said her kueh were like durians, and if they saw them they just had to eat them. They didn’t eat just one, some would buy 10 at one go,” Mdm Koh recounted with a laugh.
Today, Mdm Koh’s cooking is no longer constrained by cost. And instead of cooking for customers, she’s cooking for loved ones. Her neat kitchen is well-stocked with spices and ingredients – either bought by herself, or given to her by her friends and relatives in return for the many dishes she’s cooked for them.
LOSING A TRADITION?
The reason she braises the pork belly filling, instead of stir-frying it like most others, is because her son-in-law and grandson love her braised meats, she explained.
Yet, Mdm Koh admits, age is catching up to her. This year, she is planning to make just around 60 rice dumplings, instead of the hundreds she usually churns out.
If she stops, she says, her daughter wouldn’t be able to take over because she’s not interested in learning. “She says it’s a lot of work, and she doesn’t want to do it,” said Mdm Koh. “She says it’s easier to buy them.”
But if there’s one person in the family she hopes she can pass this recipe on to, it would be five-year-old Yu Xuan – who continually clamoured for her grandmother’s attention as the both of them wrapped dumplings together.
“Mama, it’s very hard!” she giggled as she struggled to fold the leaves.
Mdm Koh patiently took the leaves out of her hands and showed her how to do it. “That’s right, it’s been a year, hasn’t it? Okay! Like this, take it and fill it,” she instructed. “Watch mama. Press it evenly.”
“Press it evenly,” Yu Xuan parroted.
There is something in the young girl’s wide-eyed curiosity that evokes the memory of a Mdm Koh at that age, peppering her own mother with questions in the kitchen.
“She will keep asking questions,” said Mdm Koh, laughing. “Even when you’re making Milo for her, she’ll ask, ‘Mama, what is this?’”
“It’s good to teach the children,” she added, about making bak chang. “We will get old… then if the children don’t know how to make it, you will lose this tradition.”
Get the full recipe for Madam Koh's bak chang here.
This is the third in a series on vanishing home recipes. Read: When there was no money, ikan bilis was ‘like gold’: The art of humble cooking
Know an old-time home cook we could feature? Contact CNA Insider at Facebook.com/CNAInsider, or Lam Shushan on Twitter @ShuShanCNA.