Great food is in the details. And it’s the details that are rarely covered in recipes published in cookbooks — especially old-style community cookbooks, with the contributors generally assuming that everyone knows what size pan to use or how a dish should look.
That’s why hands-on learning with elder experts is so valuable and why, last year at this time, I happily spent the better part of the day with such a master: cookbook author June Kam Tong ("Popo’s Kitchen").
Tong had agreed to teach a group of us how to make joong (bamboo leaf bundles stuffed with sweet rice, pork, duck eggs, meats, beans and other good things).
I had always loved joong (pronounced choong), a feature of most dim sum spreads, but could never even begin to finish one; they were just too rich for me. Now I know why: The best joong is a symphony in pork fat, the rice having been laced with pieces of pork belly and sweet lup cheong sausage.
By the end of the day, I had another reason to love joong: It’s so much fun to make, so satisfying when you finally master the technique of wrapping the rice in leaves and tying the bundles with string.
I’d seen it done, but it’s one thing to watch a skilled joong maker in action and another to find yourself wishing for octopus legs in order to keep slippery bamboo and ti leaves, moist rice and beans, chunks of pork and rounds of salt egg yolk all in place, neatly wrapped up without danger of leakage.
Tong and her two assistant teachers illustrated why their joong is so prized. Commercial joong usually contains just tiny bits of pork belly. But they use pieces an inch square or more, three to a packet.
"That’s what makes our joong special," Tong said.
Joong-making isn’t the work of just one day, and it’s not a one-person job unless you’re angling for martyrdom. It’s best carried out by a group of workers who can divide the spoils.
The stuffing of mochi rice and black-eyed peas and the dried bamboo leaves must be soaked overnight, all the flavoring ingredients minced, the pork belly pieced out, the ti leaves softened in the freezer.
ON THE NET:
Assembly, in a bowl big enough for a baby bath, takes some elbow grease. And then there’s the tricky stuffing process, making use of a pyramid-shaped metal mold — a cheater move, but everyone who has tried it confirmed that wrapping joong by hand is best left to experts paid to do it.
And then the joong must be cooked, a long, slow process — five hours or so simmering on the stove, or 2 1/2 hours in a pressure cooker.
By that time you’re ready to eat the packets, bamboo leaves and all!
You can, by the way, make a wrapless joong, by steaming the rice-pork mixture as you would plain rice; it’s akin to chirashi (scattered) sushi, in which the flavored rice is not bound up in nori.
"It’s just as good and it’s easier," said Elsie Ching, another of the observers.
Gladys Lee, who was one of the audience, also serves this free-form joong.
However you make joong, our Chinese elder "board of directors" agreed that the key to great joong is a generous hand with the pork.
It is, after all, New Year’s, and lavish dishes are symbolic of a prosperous year to come.
Joong — rice-pork-egg bundles — is traditionally wrapped in bamboo leaves, but cookbook author June Kam Tong said the leaves are kind of tricky for beginners because they are so slim. Ti leaves work well to form the outside of the wrapper (and most of us can find them for free).
1 pound dried black-eyed peas
5 pounds sweet (mochi) rice
3/8 cup sea salt
54 (1-inch square) pieces pork belly
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon powdered Chinese five-spice
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 pound lup cheong (sweet Chinese sausage), chopped fine
20 large and 20 small fresh green ti leaves, washed
20 bamboo leaves
18 to 20 salted duck egg yolks
Cover black-eyed peas in water by 2 inches; soak overnight. Drain.
Soak mochi rice with 3/8 cup salt in water to cover for 2 hours; drain. Combine pork belly with 1 teaspoon salt and five-spice; mix well and set aside.
Using a very large bowl, combine peas, mochi rice, oil and lup cheong; mix well.
To form wrappers: Use a pyramid-shaped joong mold (available in Chinatown). Line the mold horizontally with two ti leaves slightly off the apex, overflowing the sides. Fold a bamboo leaf in half to form a V; the shiny side should be out with the back of the leaf facing the filling. Fold corner of the base from the center to form an "ear" or cone. Push into center of mold, 45 degrees off the horizontal so that the lined mold will look like a star-burst pattern.
Place a serving spoon’s worth of filling in bottom. With fingers, make a well in the rice mixture. Place duck egg yolk into the depression and surround with pork pieces. Cover with rice and tamp down. Fold leaves over mixture. Trim as needed and tie with cotton string.
Steam until done, 5 hours or 2-1/2 hours using pressure cooker. Serve hot or at room temperature. Makes 18 to 20.
Approximate nutritional analysis, per serving (based on 20 joong): 900 calories, 43 g fat, 14 g saturated fat, 300 mg cholesterol, greater than 2,200 mg sodium, 104 g carbohydrate, 6 g fiber, 3 g sugar, 24 g protein