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wrapping bakcang

September 17, 2013


bak chang ready for boiling

I peer out from behind the kitchen counter, straining to catch a glimpse of the activities beyond. Bundles of blue raffia are looped over doorknobs, the string fluttering in the breeze of a single oscillating fan. My father squats on the floor, pulling on them tightly as he finishes each bundle.

Spears of dark green bamboo leaves protrude from the red plastic bucket to his left. To his right sits a tray filled with bowls of liao (Hokkien for “the good stuff”, or so it seems in my family’s vernacular). Glutinous rice that has been seasoned, soaked and fried. Slivers of lup cheong. Halved, rehydrated chestnuts. A mountain of black eyed beans.

Hold. Twist. Scoop. Pack. Fold. Wrap. Tie.

And, like that, another green pyramid hangs complete, ready for boiling.

bamboo leaves that have been soaked overnight

I’ve always admired my father’s skill. His ability to fold bamboo leaves into a perfect triangular prism, to pack them with the right quantity of rice and meat and beans, to tie them tightly enough that the filling will hold, but not so tightly that the leaves split during boiling from the tension caused by expanding grains of rice. So twenty years later, I am standing by my parents’ kitchen sink, sleeves rolled up and fingernails trimmed, ready to practice the deft movements I’d seen performed since early childhood. To learn to “pao bakcang”

My mother always kept a few bakcang (pronounced: bah-chàng) in the freezer, dubbing the niftily packaged parcels “the ultimate microwave meal”. Frozen bakcang thaws well, and quickly, so I grew up eating it year round. My favourite part was the tip – a child’s mouthful of glutinous rice seasoned in sesame oil, soy and spices. The treasured liao was usually left behind in preference for these corners (a habit my parents despaired over at first, before realising it meant more liao for them).

It was not always like this though. When my father was a child, bakcang was only prepared once a year (and eaten for as many meals as could be stomached) during the humid days of bakcang season.

the liao for bak chang

On the fifth day of the fifth lunar month they gathered at the big house. Brothers, sisters, sons and daughters. Nephews, nieces and cousins alike. All of them streaming into the kitchen from the rooms of their shared accommodation – my father’s family wandering up from two streets away. The invitation was unspoken. First Aunty had purchased the ingredients. It was time to pao bakcang.

The aunties soaked, seasoned and fried the rice. Chestnuts roasted over charcoal. Long strings of lup cheong were steamed and sliced. Meat braised slowly in soy and spices while beans – there was always a mountain of black eyed beans – sat soaking in plastic tubs next to uncles who sweated as they sawed the tops off empty biscuit tins in preparation for the boil up.

Once the ingredients were prepared and the bamboo leaves had been deemed supple enough, they would assemble. Aunties, uncles, brothers and sisters arranged themselves in two facing rows with bowls of ingredients between them. Perched on stumpy wooden stools, they flexed their feet skyward, hooked a loop of string over their big toes, grabbed a couple of leaves and started to pao.

They would chat as they worked at incredible speed – making hundreds of bakcang in the space of just one day – and the children, who usually  played games or lay idly on their backs as the adults worked, would sometimes squat nearby, drawn into the ritual of hold, twist, scoop, pack, fold, wrap and tie.

wrapped bak chang in the sink, ready for boiling

One by one, year by year, they left the big house until only my first grand-aunt was left. So each family began their own bakcang traditions, their own packing days.

It wasn’t until then that my father learnt how to pao. He sat with his mother and her sister as they made bakcang for the family. It was a much more subdued event than the affairs of old and there was now time to learn. She taught him how to hold the leaves. How to grasp the fold with one hand and stuff with the other. How to know which way to twist the tops on and how much filling was just enough filling. She praised his long fingers – they would make it easier for him to learn the skill.

how to wrap a bak chang (part 1) how to wrap a bak chang (part 2)how to wrap a bak chang (part 3)

 

I have the same long fingers as my father. The same mechanical mind, if slightly spatially challenged. My eyebrows knit in concentration as I make my first folds, grains of rice falling between the bowl and my leafy pouch.

 

“Relax” he says to me, “don’t squeeze so hard. It’s not going anywhere.”

 

“But it is!” I cry out. I am afraid that if I don’t learn how to pao, how to master bakcang, that the skill will disappear. That the aunties who make them will grow old and feeble. That my children will never know the smell of bakcang boiling in a large tin pot. That the bakcang of my childhood will be locked into my memory, an inconsequential footnote lost amongst the chapters of my heritage.

 

I pack down the top grains of rice. Fold the top leaves down and over again to the side. Wind the raffia around once and again, securing it with two knots – just in case. It is misshapen, starting to loosen and I am frustrated. But my father tightens the strings, squeezes the edges and suddenly, it is looking a bit more promising.

 

He hands me two more leaves.

 

“Again,” he says, encouragingly.

boiled bak chang

As the steaming bundles are lifted from the pot, my mother checks each one for splits or tears. The first bundle is woeful. A flaccid, underfilled, waterlogged bakcang is looked upon piteously and another is determinedly lop-sided. But they improve. By the fifth batch, she is squinting – turning them upside down and running her fingers over the knots.

“I can’t tell them apart” she finally admits.

My father and I beam with pride and tuck into the cast-offs for lunch.

the bak chang after boiling - inside and out

 


  • #1
    September 17th, 2013

    Job well done Shez! It’s definitely not on the same levels as wrapping spring rolls (cha cio) but it took me months to finally get it to look exactly like mums. It does all come down to practice. I bet it was worth it hearing those words from mum, and eating them freshly steamed.

  • #2
    September 17th, 2013

    Love this post! My mum recently said she’ll be making this soon and I made sure she knows to wait until I’m over so I can document it and get hands-on myself. Totally agree that things like this are becoming a lost skill.

  • #3
    September 17th, 2013

    I love these! There’s just something about the glutinous rice… I better learn quick because I don’t want the skill to disappear either!

  • #4
    September 17th, 2013

    What a vivid image of the extended family wrapping away. That’s what memories are made of, and with your efforts, Shez, they’ll be an inherited skill instead of a mere memory.

  • #5
    September 18th, 2013

    I tried wrapping it once, it fell apart ^^” my gran is really quick at making them hehe you did a great job! love eating these

  • #6
    September 18th, 2013

    wow ive always wanted to learn how to wrap these little morsels of deliciousness!

  • #7
    September 20th, 2013

    Such a cool story and I wanna learn how to wrap these. Plus eat them afterwards, of course.

  • #8
    November 21st, 2013

    […] place: “Wrapping Bakcang” by Sheryl of […]

  • #9
    November 21st, 2013

    Fantastic post, Shez. Such a worthy winner of the EDB13 writing competition, I love every word on this page (screen? Well, you know what I mean!). So great to discover your blog, too. I look forward to reading through your glorious archives very soon! xx

Shez