The humble golden kee chang that are extraordinary
The meticulous preparation of kee chang (alkaline dumplings) commences a week ahead. It entails the painstaking task of meticulously separating jasmine rice grains from a mound of glutinous rice, demanding both time and unwavering patience. This laborious process is essential to achieve the desired translucent look of the dumplings. Any presence of rice grains would mar the enchanting allure of the kee chang's transparency.
As a young child, I vividly recall engaging in the arduous task of sifting through rice grains – a practice Mum affectionately referred to as "pilih the pulut." Back then, I failed to comprehend the necessity of such a meticulous undertaking, as I believed that everything would be gobbled up in due course. However, Mum adamantly dismissed our rationalisations, unwavering in her commitment to uncompromising quality. Today, as a reflection of Mum's influence, I too have imbibed the ethos of unwavering quality. It seems somewhat ironic that my own daughter now echoes the very arguments I once presented.
The majority of the photographs featured in this story were captured during a chang making class led by Lily Wong, held under the auspices of the Ladies' Circle of the State Chinese (Penang) Association. Lily, with immense enthusiasm, generously shared her expertise in the art of chang making, including kee chang. While some culinary enthusiasts may incorporate a small amount of red bean paste, Lily prefers to enhance her kee chang by adding one or two plump kidney beans. However, she predominantly crafts most without the kidney beans. The participants of the cooking class were fortunate to enjoy a hands-on experience, actively partaking in the creation of these delectable dumplings. The day brimmed with mirth and camaraderie, evoking cherished memories of the moments when my mother would lovingly prepare these changs.
With remarkable dexterity, Mum's hands effortlessly made everything look easy, accomplishing the task with lightning speed. It was a necessity, considering the considerable quantity she had to produce to satiate our voracious appetites. Eager to learn, I eagerly joined in, immersing myself in the art of kee chang making under her patient guidance. Today, the skills and knowledge I possess are a testament to her invaluable teachings.
Recently, Mum received a batch of kee chang and could not help but express her disappointment with them. The dumplings clung stubbornly to the bamboo leaves, exhibiting an undesirable stickiness and a lack of the desired "kiew" (Hokkien for springy and chewy) texture. In the good old days, heaven forbad that you should share such low-grade kee chang, as it could potentially mar one's reputation indefinitely. Within the fabric of local Chinese culture, the concept of "saving face" holds great significance, particularly in tight-knit communities like Penang. In a place where nearly everyone is connected through familial ties or acquaintances, news travels faster than a speeding bullet.
Although Mum has stopped making kee chang for decades, she could not resist sharing her insights on the matter. With a hint of nostalgia, she remarked, "Kee chang may consist of just two ingredients – pulut (glutinous rice) and kee chooi (lye water), but even with limited room for variation and error, the methods employed in making kee chang can differ significantly. The quality of the kee chang hinges on its translucency and 'kiew' texture. To achieve these desired qualities, one must use quality pulut. It is important to note that not all pulut is the same, given the wide variety available in the market. When purchasing pulut, it is advisable to opt for those imported from Thailand and obtain it from a trusted source you know."
The kee chang crafted by Mum possessed an exquisite charm – did not stick to the leaves and were dainty-looking parcels. Each dumpling maintained its well-defined shape, exhibiting a soft and enticingly "kiew" texture. When held up to the light, they gleamed like radiant yellow gems. One of the secrets to achieving a flawless kee chang lies in determining the precise amount of glutinous rice to be encased within each parcel. It is crucial to allow ample space for the rice to expand during the cooking process. Mum emphasised that an uncooked kee chang should exhibit a subtle jiggle when gently shaken. Of course, Mum can tell if the amount is right by just listening. Should an excessive amount of glutinous rice be added, the kee chang will be compact and hard; if too little, it will not form a beautiful shape and could fall apart. Such knowledge can only be obtained through practice. Do try till you master the art of making kee chang.
Mum's kee chang were always simple, sans any additional fillings. Her humble offerings were far from being ordinary. However, if you prefer the indulgence of red bean paste, feel free to incorporate it into your kee chang, or follow Lily's lead by inserting a kidney bean or two.
Curious about a discrepancy in certain recipes, I sought my mother's insight regarding the inclusion of a tablespoon of cooking oil. Although I knew she never added any oil herself, she speculated that its purpose might be to prevent the kee chang from sticking to the leaves. Hence, for the recipe provided below, I have included the optional addition of cooking oil. After all, who wants to unwrap a kee chang only to find it stubbornly clinging to the leaves? However, it is crucial to choose a neutral cooking oil that imparts no aroma or flavour to the delicate dumplings.
The below recipe is from Lily Wong.
Ingredients (20-25 pieces)
- 20 – 25 bamboo leaves
- 20 – 25 dumpling or raffia strings (each about 90 cm long)
- 500 g glutinous rice
- 1 Tbsp lye water
- 1 Tbsp cooking oil
- Use only bamboo leaves that are not torn and are free of holes. Soak the leaves overnight in water and weighing them down with something heavy. When ready for use, rinse and drain them before cleaning with a damp cloth.
- If you are using dumpling strings, discard thin ones that could easily break when tying. Thick ones may be split into two. Soak the strings with the bamboo leaves. Rinse them till the water runs clear and wring dry, ready for use.
- Rinse the glutinous rice till the water runs clear. Add enough water to cover the rice and leave to soak overnight. Drain thoroughly before use.
- Add lye water and cooking oil to the drained glutinous rice and mix thoroughly.
- Secure the dumpling strings to avoid them from rolling when dumplings are being tied.
- Lay two bamboo leaves horizontally and fold them in the middle to form a cone. Fill the cone slightly over 3/4 full with the glutinous rice (do not fill it all the way up). Fold the tops of the leaves down covering the rice, then fold in the two sides to form a triangle. Secure the dumpling with the strings.
- Submerge the dumplings in a pot of water and boil them for about 2.5 – 3 hours depending on the size of the dumplings.
- To see if dumplings are cooked, unwrap one and check if the inside is soft. If it is hard and the rice falls apart easily, boil them till soft (for another 15 – 30 minutes).
- Remove dumplings from the water and set them aside to cool. The soft dumplings will firm up slightly.
- To enjoy, unwrap the dumplings and served them with a gula Melaka sauce, sugar or even kaya (coconut jam).
If you opt to utilise a pressure cooker for cooking the kee chang, allocate approximately 50 minutes for the process. Ensure that the dumplings are fully submerged in water by filling the pot to cover them entirely. Securely close the lid and adjust the steam release valve to the "seal" position. Set the pressure cooker to high pressure mode. Once the 50 minutes have elapsed, promptly release the pressure. To ascertain if the kee chang has cooked thoroughly, carefully unwrap one and inspect its doneness.
For convenient storage of the kee chang, it is advisable to seal them in a freezer bag before placing them in the freezer. They can be safely stored for about a month. When you are ready to enjoy them, remove the dumplings from the freezer and allow them to thaw in the refrigerator for a day. To reheat, place them in a steamer set to high heat for about 10 minutes. Remember to let them cool before indulging.
When incorporating the clear lye water into the glutinous rice, you will observe a gentle transformation, as its alkaline properties imbue the rice with a light yellow hue. Once cooked, the kee chang assumes a striking, vibrant egg yellow colour. It is crucial not to exceed the recommended quantity of lye water, as doing so may result in a bitter taste and peculiar aftertaste. The scientific term for lye water is "aqueous sodium hydroxide." In this modern era, such names can understandably trigger concerns.
According to an article in the Singapore Straits Times, senior health correspondent Salma Khalik noted that, “Food-grade lye water is very different from lye water for industrial use and is safe for consumption. In fact, the ingredient is found in many commonly consumed food and is sometimes used as a substitute for baking soda. It is added to Chinese and Japanese noodles to prevent them from disintegrating when cooked in soup and adds a chewy "bite" to the taste. In Chinese cuisine, it is also used in mooncakes, "zongzi" or yellow glutinous dumplings, as well as to make century eggs. In the West, it is used to make cookies crispier, olives less bitter and it gives bagels and pretzels their texture. While there is no definitive proof that lye is not carcinogenic, it should be noted that lots of food can be carcinogenic, such as salted fish and pickled mustard green. The key is moderation in consumption".
Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
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Updated 12 June 2021