My favorite food as a kid wasn’t mac and cheese, or pizza, or the Happy Meal.
It had nothing to do with brownies or chocolate cake. It didn’t involve spaghetti. Instead, it was a dish that a quarter of the world is probably very familiar with, just not this corner of the world. That dish is zong zi, these happy little packages. And so prettily wrapped.
The closest thing I could say to describe it is that it’s like a Chinese tamale, but different. For one, the starch component is sticky marinated rice, not masa, and it’s wrapped in lotus leaves, not corn husks.
When my father sampled one from our latest batch, he let out a gutteral, unselfconscious moan I associate with only the best food. “Two thousand years of culture,” he said, “and you get this.”
There are as many varieties of zong zi as there are food cultures in China. I’ve seen it done with chicken, bamboo, and mushrooms.You can add sugar to the rice and stuff it with bean paste for a not-too-sweet dessert. Some people like it that way, but it’s not for me. I’ve done a lot of soul-searching about why sweet red beans bother me so much, but to no avail. If you ask me, savory is the way to go with this dish, and as tends to be the case, Grandma’s recipe is the best.
And here it is: richly dark rice marinated with oil and soy sauce, with a fatty marinated pork filling. Decadent and luscious. Two thousand years of culture in every bite.
Pork Belly Zong Zi
– 5 lbs. sticky rice
– 2.5 lbs. pork belly, cut into 2-inch squares
– 2 lbs. dried lotus leaves (2 packages)
– 1.5 cups Li Kum Kee regular soy sauce
– 1.5 cups Li Kum Kee chicken marinade
– ½ cup cooking wine
– 2 cups canola oil
Rinse rice in cold water until it runs clear. Allow to dry overnight. Marinate rice with 1 cup regular soy sauce, 1 cup chicken marinade, and canola oil. Marinate pork belly with ½ cup regular soy sauce, ½ cup chicken marinade and cooking wine. Allow both to sit for 2-3 hours.
To prepare lotus leaves, soak in boiling water until supple. Fold the end of a lotus leaf onto itself to form a cavity for the filling. Spoon 2 tablespoons of marinated rice into lotus leaf, followed by one or two pieces of pork, followed by another tablespoon of rice.
Wrap firmly but not too tightly in the leaf so that no rice can fall out. You may need to use an extra leaf or two. Secure with string. Repeat until all the rice and meat is gone. Boil for five hours.