A couple of Saturdays ago marked the first (annual?) joong party I hosted. It turned out to be a mixed success (more than not.)
I learnt how to make joong (Chinese pyramid shaped tamales that are wrapped in bamboo leaves, tied up in serious S&M type bondage) last year from Joe’s mom . . . in September. Traditionally they’re eaten in June, as part of the Dragon Boat Festival, but I was too busy in June or even July. So in a nod to American convenience of time, we were doing this August. (Incidentally, we’re coming onto mooncake season, which I am not planning to try to make. That’s something best left to the professionals at Wing Wah bakery in HK!)
Joe’s mom used to make them all by herself, but it’s such a labor intensive process, I knew I was going to invite friends and family and make a party of it. I have to admit, I was really nervous about having to initiate complete novices into making joong; I had received such detailed, complicated instructions that I was worried about being able to transmit them completely. But now I know the process of making joong is a lot more forgiving and accommodating.
The joong consists of a glutinous rice base, and an array of ingredients that is as varied as the individuals who make them. Joe’s mom uses side pork, Chinese sausage, lap yuk: cured side pork, cha siu, mung beans, dried shrimp, shallots, and salted egg. Other people I know put in peanuts, dried scallops, mushrooms, etc. It’s a very dense food, but it’s much tastier than fruitcake.
You can also buy them in some Chinese restaurants or markets, but those tend be mostly cheaper filler like rice and peanuts and very little meats. Hence Joe’s mom started to make her own. Also she was worried that they didn’t wash the bamboo leaves clean enough before making them . . . you can imagine if you want what possible contaminants would be included. However, these suckers are boiled for 3-4 hours, so maybe the dirt would be sterilized . . . After all, traditionally, once you cooked a joong, you could keep them for a few days and eat them at room temp. It was a good food to bring on day trips and picnics, as my dad and his siblings did when they were growing up in Hong Kong.
You’d think that the kitchen prep for the ingredients would take the longest time, and it does take a while. The rice and beans have to be rinsed repeatedly until the water runs clear. Separated the yolks from whites for 3 dozen eggs. Chopping the meats into bite sized pieces. But it’s actually the bamboo leaves that take the most effort. 3 days before (or even 4, 5, 6 or 7 days before), soak the leaves. The next day, boil them in a mild lye water mixture. Let them cool to room temp, and then scrub them in clean cool water. Store them in clean water, and change the water daily.
With the 4 packages of leaves I decided to use, this took a really, really long time. And uses a lot of water. The recipe called for 2-3 packages, but I figured I wanted an extra package of leaves for my friends to practice tying joong with plain glutinous rice, before making actual joong with meat stuffing. I think each package has about 50 leaves.
(This led to a funny incident with Jason: He practiced tying up the joong with all glutinous rice, but didn’t want to undo what he crafted. So he had a few all-rice joong. Solid mass of 100% bland starch! He said later he cooked some Aidell’s sausage to eat with them!) Actually, Joe had jokingly suggested we use Aidell’s sausage as one of the ingredients.
Joe and I usually have a stash of joong from Joe’s mom in our freezer as emergency/lazy food. When we’re too lazy to cook, you can take one out and steam it for lunch or dinner. You can’t insult home-made joong by microwaving them. Joe’s mom tends to supersize everything when it comes to food: her joong are humongous, and she makes a lot of them. She used to make them every year, and usually we’d get a new batch before we’d finished the old ones. (The same thing tends to happen with her Christmas cookies.)
In this case, I decided to feed them to my friends; so that they’d know what it tasted like, before they started making them. After all why go through the trouble to make something you don’t care to eat?
. . . . . I got lazy about writing up the rest of this. So I’ll just add that, everyone had fun (to my relief), and even people who hadn’t planned to make joong tried their hand at making one. So I plan to have joong parties annually, but next time, I need more ingredients like Chinese sausage, salted egg yolks and dried scallops, and less side pork. Because I bought the amounts based on Joe’s mom’s recipe and her tastes, but everyone customized their joong according to their taste, which I couldn’t predict in advance.
It was worth the fun, but I was exhausted. I stayed up to 3 AM boiling the joong, in the stockpots everyone loaned me. I had a ton of leaves left, which ended up as mulch in our garden.
Oh, and after the party, I decided we should go out for Korean food, so we did.