The humble golden kee chang that are extraordinary
Preparation for kee chang (alkaline dumplings) starts a week in advance. Picking the jasmine rice grains out from a heap of glutinous rice is time-consuming and requires patience. The laborious task is necessary in order to obtain a translucent finish for the dumplings. If rice grains are present, the kee chang will lose their translucent appeal. I vividly remember sorting through the grains of rice when young, or as Mum would call it, “pilih the pulut”. I failed to understand then why such a tedious undertaking was even necessary since everything would be gobbled up eventually. Mum refused to entertain our rationale and would not compromise on quality. Today, being a "product" of Mum, I too have learnt not to compromise on quality, finding it rather ironic that my daughter would utter the same arguments I once did.
Most of the photographs used in this story were taken at a cooking class by Lily Wong, organised under the Ladies' Circle of the State Chinese (Penang) Association. Lily was happy to impart her knowledge in chang making including kee chang. Although some cooks will add a small amount of red beans paste, Lily would simply add a large kidney bean or two into the kee chang. She would make most without the kidney beans. All the participants in the cooking class had hands-on experience in making the dumplings. It was a fun-filled day, bringing back fond memories of when Mum made them.
Mum's dexterous hands made everything look easy, completing the task at lightning speed. She had to, in order to make a large batch to feed her battalion of ravenous "broods". Of course, I had a go at making kee chang as well, learning all I know from her.
Recently, Mum received a batch of kee chang and had a lot to say about them. The dumplings stuck to the bamboo leaves were rather sticky and not "kiew" (Hokkien for springy and chewy) at all. In the good old days, heaven forbad that you should share such low-grade kee chang as they would tarnish one’s reputation forever. You see, local Chinese culture is all about “saving face” and this is rather prevalent in a close-knit community like Penang. Here, everyone is most probably related to someone you know and news travel faster than a speeding bullet.
Although Mum has stopped making kee chang for decades, she had this to say: "There are only two ingredients in kee chang – pulut (glutinous rice) and kee chooi (lye water); yet with very little room for variation and error, one method of making kee chang can be drastically different from another. A good kee chang has to be translucent and “kiew”. You have to buy good pulut to obtain these properties. Not all pulut is the same as there is a large variety available on the market. Always opt for pulut imported from Thailand and buy it from someone you know and trust."
The kee chang Mum made did not stick to the leaves and were dainty-looking parcels. Each held its shape well, was soft, “kiew” and when held to the light, was like a brilliant yellow jewel. One of the tricks in making a successful kee chang is knowing how much glutinous rice to put in the parcel. It is important to leave enough room for the rice to expand during the cooking process. Mum noted that the uncooked parcel must jiggle a little when shaken. Of course, Mum can tell if the amount is right by just listening. If too much glutinous rice is 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 made only plain ones without adding any filling. Her humble offerings were far from being ordinary. If you enjoy red bean paste with your kee chang, go ahead and add it in; or insert a kidney bean or two like Lily.
I ask Mum to clarify why some recipes call for a tablespoon of cooking oil although I know she would not add any. She thinks it is to prevent the kee chang from sticking to the leaves. Thus. for the recipe below, I have added the cooking oil. Who wants to unwrap a kee chang that sticks to the leaves? However, do use cooking oil that is neutral and has no aroma or flavour.
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 are using a pressure cooker to cook the kee chang, you might need about 50 minutes or so. Fill the pot with water until it covers the dumplings. Close the lid and turn the steam release valve to “seal”. Set it on high pressure. After 50 minutes, release the pressure immediately. Unwrap one to check if the kee chang is cooked through.
To store the kee chang, seal them in a freezer bag before placing them in the freezer. They are good for up to one month or so. When ready to enjoy, remove the dumplings from the freezer and thaw them in the refrigerator for a day. Reheat in a steamer on high heat for 10 minutes and allow to cool before consuming them.
When you add the clear lye water to the glutinous rice, you will notice that its alkaline properties will turn the rice a light yellow tint and when cooked, a beautiful strong egg yellow hue ensues. Refrain from adding more than the recipe calls for as it will make the kee chang bitter with a peculiar aftertaste. The scientific name for lye water is “aqueous sodium hydroxide”. In this age and time, such names set off the red alert bell in one's head. Is lye water safe for consumption?
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