Rice dumplings you need to try during the Duanwu Festival

Duanwu Festival, also known as the Dragon Boat Festival, falls on May 30 this year – which is the 5th day of the 5th month of the Chinese lunar calendar.

In the few days leading up to this festival, you'll see lots of rice dumplings hanging around the stalls at food courts, supermarkets and so on. While dragon-boating is also a celebration activity, most Chinese in Singapore symbolically eat rice dumplings on this day, though this is not really practiced among the younger generation.

Photo courtesy: singaporemarriott.com
Photo courtesy: singaporemarriott.com

A traditional holiday originating in China, the festival occurs near the summer solstice. One of the well-loved stories regarding the festival is that it commemorates the death of the famous Chinese scholar Qu Yuan, who was a loyal minister of the King of Chu in the third century BCE. The other officials, who felt threatened by his intellect and wit, and accused him of false conspiracy charges.

He was exiled by the emperor and in his despair he had drowned himself by attaching a heavy stone to his chest and jumping into the Miluo River.

But because he was well-loved by the common folk, they threw cooked rice wrapped in leaves into the water, in the hope that the fish in the river would eat the rice instead and leave his body alone. Fishermen also started to beat their oars against the water in a desperate attempt to stop the man-eating fish in the river from devouring his body.

The local people began the tradition of throwing sacrificial cooked rice into the river for Qu Yuan every year on this day. Over the years, eating rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves has become a tradition, even though most Chinese diaspora in Singapore are not connected to or familiar with the story.

Nonetheless, everyone can enjoy a good rice dumpling. There are also different flavours! Here are some options you can try out:


Photo courtesy: blog.seasonwithspice.com
Photo courtesy: blog.seasonwithspice.com

The name "ba-chang" literally means "meat dumpling" in Hokkien dialect. The glutinous rice is stir fried with spice powder and dark soy sauce before use, and ingredients include marinated pork belly, chestnut, shiitake mushrooms, dried oysters and dried shrimps.

Sometimes a salted egg yolk is also added along with the usual ingredients.

This is probably the most common around!

Nyonya chang

Photo courtesy: rebeccasaw.com
Photo courtesy: rebeccasaw.com

The descendants of Chinese immigrants who came to the Malay archipelago call themselves Baba-Nyonya. Nyonya is the term for the women and Baba for the men. These are the Peranakan Chinese, or Straits-born Chinese.

Unique to this part of the world, the Nyonya rice dumpling is hence a fusion of Malay and Chinese culinary style, and is a favourite among many. The candied winter melong gives the Nyonya chang its distinctive sweetness, and the filling consists mainly of minced fatty pork, shiitake mushroom and coriander seeds. The dumpling also has a signature blue rice tip!

It is also said that the name "Nyonya chang" was inspired by the fact that these Peranakan dumplings are curvier than other types, with a ‘waistline’.

Kee Chang

Photo courtesy: breadetbutter.wordpress.com
Photo courtesy: breadetbutter.wordpress.com

If savoury rice dumplings are not your cup of tea, try the sweet version. Kee chang means alkaline water dumpling; the glutinous rice is treated with lye water, giving the dumpling its distinctive yellow colour.

They normally don't contain any fillings and are a lot smaller in size. Usually eaten as a sweet snack or dessert, you can drizzle sugar syrup over them, or eat them with kaya. Some would dip the dumplings in fine sugar as well!