The Odd Gratuitous Inquiry (TOGI) is a podcast where I’ll investigate unnecessary questions and speculate answers no one asked for.
The Origins of Bak Chang – Dialects, Diaspora, Dragons, Qu Yuan Myths and Glutinous Rice
Enjoying Bak Chang
I had bak chang for breakfast recently.
When my friend passed the bak chang to me, he said there are Hokkien, Cantonese and Teochew ones in there. I never knew there were different types based on the Chinese dialect groups. The Peranakans also made Nyonya versions.
Bak chang, also known as zongzi or rice dumpling, in Singapore is generally glutinous rice wrapped with fillings like pork and chestnuts in bamboo and lotus leaves, and usually steamed. Other fillings are lup cheong (Chinese smoked sausage), salted egg yolk, peanuts, mushrooms.
Hokkien ones usually have hae bee (dried shrimp) and dark soy sauce giving it a darker colour.
Cantonese ones have green or yellow beans.
Teochew ones have red bean or lotus seed or their derivative paste as a sweet filling.
Hainanese ones are larger with more liao (ingredients).
Nonya ones have minced pork, candied winter melon strips and blue dye at the tip of the bak chang from blue pea flower. By the way, do you notice that the blue colour is rare in food? I once read a book on the science of gastronomy which explained that anthocyanidin, the blue pigment, is rare in natural plants. But that chemical sounds like poison used by Russians.
There’s also kee chang which are usually yellow, slightly transparent and plain, eaten with sugar or syrup.
I surmise that the different Chinese dialect groups, as well as the Peranakans, made variations of bak chang because of the different ingredients available to them in South China. After all, bak chang has been made and eaten in China for a very long time.
Eaten by the Chinese Diaspora across SEA
As it turns out, it’s not just the Chinese in Singapore who eat bak chang.
Bak chang is made and eaten by the Chinese in China and the Chinese diaspora across East Asia and South-East Asia, including Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines, Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia.
In some of these countries, they are called some variant of bak chang like nom chang in Cambodia, Khanom Chang in Laos.
In my research, I found an academic research piece by an anthropologist studying Chinese Indonesian asylum seekers in the US. One of the interviewees talked about making and eating bakchang which contains pork, leading the author to conclude (among other things) that “pork is an important criterion for differentiating a Chinese Indonesian from a Muslim Indonesian”: ChorSwang Ngin, Proving “Race” Identity of Chinese Indonesian Asylum Seekers 29 January 2018, Sarat, A. and Rodriguez, L. (Ed.) Special Issue: Cultural Expert Witnessing (Studies in Law, Politics, and Society, Vol. 74), Emerald Publishing Limited, pp. 133-164. https://doi.org/10.1108/S1059-433720180000074007.
How did bak chang come about?
This got me wondering: How did bak chang or zongzi come about?
Of course, we must begin with a first question. What is the essential definition of a bak chang? Must it contain meat? Must it be steamed? Must it contain glutinous rice?
It’s remarkable that there’s actually ancient Chinese literature from the 2nd century AD, during the later Han dynasty, which mentions sticky rice wrapped in leaves being eaten at duanwu jie (the fifth day of the fifth month).
Excerpt from “Fengsu Tongyi” 風俗通義: “先節一日，以菰葉裹黏米栗棗，以灰汁煮令熟。”
I guess bak chang is essentially sticky rice wrapped in leaves.
Origin Myth? Qu Yuan & Dragon Boat Festival
The popular origin story of zongzi relates to Qu Yuan (屈原), a poet minister from the Chu 楚 state in the 3rd century BC. This was during the Warring States period. Qu Yuan apparently killed himself after he tried to advise his king but the king refused to listen and exiled him for perceived disloyalty–not a ‘loving critic’ of the nation!
It seems like a repeated phenomenon throughout human history across cultures: the poetic biblical prophets like Daniel and Amos warned their kings to enact social justice but they refused and were persecuted. Mahmoud Darwish from Palestine. There are many other such poetic types persecuted for their loving criticism. [For the avoidance of doubt, mentioning any of these does not mean I agree with any of these poets’ political views; neither does it make me a Marxist or any -ist sympathiser.]
Coming back to Qu Yuan, he killed himself by drowning in the river. The Chinese people (lao bai xing) were grateful for his loyal service and decided to throw zongzi into the river so that the fish would eat the zongzi instead of his body. Honestly, I think the fish just had a massive buffet of both zongzi and Qu Yuan’s body…
Anyway, this happened around duanwu jie (端午节).
It so happens that the dragon boat festival also occurs on duanwu jie.
So the origin myth somehow conflated dragons and dragon boats into the Qu Yuan story. The image we have today is that the Chinese people took dragon boats out onto the river to throw zongzi into the water.
However, it’s likely that the relationship between Qu Yuan, dragon boats and zongzi was an afterthought.
The dragon boat festival seems to have been celebrated long before Qu Yuan’s time. The festival commemorated Wu Zixu (伍子胥), a former minister in the Wu Kingdom, who died in the 5th century BC.
Some scholars suggest that the festival was celebrated even way before that as an appeasement of dragon spirits. Somehow, the fifth month was a rather unlucky month and the Chinese of old must have believed that the dragons were hungry.
Another variation of the Qu Yuan story is that the people wanted to feed Qu Yuan’s spirit with rice thrown in the water, but the rice was being eaten by some dragon spirit instead. A few centuries later, Qu Yuan appeared in a dream to some dude and conveyed his frustration that he ain’t receiving the rice, so the people should wrap the rice in leaves, then the dragon won’t eat it. (Frankly, I don’t see why a dragon spirit is deterred from eating the rice just because it’s wrapped in leaves.)
By the time of the later Ming and Qing dynasties, zongzi became regarded as lucky food. Candidates in the imperial examinations for the civil service–much like those IQ tests for potential PSC scholars in Singapore today–would eat pen zongzi because the word sounds like the word for ‘pass’ as in pass exams not pus from a burst pimple. It seems like the Chinese are fond of mispronouncing words and turning them into superstitious lucky charms. The same reason why many Chinese people like the number 8 (八; ba1) because it sounds like “fa” for “fa cai” or “huat”, that means to get rich. But ‘fa’ sounds like ‘fart’ in English, so maybe it’s an ironic commentary on the fleeting nature of wealth.
Bak Chang equivalents across cultures
Could there be an earlier origin for bak chang? To investigate this, I tried to find other cultures which have rice wrapped in leaves.
In Japan, there is onigiri–rice wrapped in seaweed, usually in a conical or pyramid shape, similar to bak chang. It seems that the earliest written record of onigiri is from the 11th century. So this is much later than zongzi in China. What is interesting though is that the reason for making onigiri the way it is was because it was easier to store, bring around and eat as a rice ball. In a way, not so different from the zongzi in China, where people had to bring the dumplings out to take their exams or throw into the river.
Then I found something interesting. In the United States, people regarded zongzi as tamales (pronounced tuh·maa·lei).
Tamales is a dish made of sticky corn-based dough steamed in leaves. Tamales apparently originated in the Latin American region as early as 8000 to 5000 BC. The Aztec and Maya civilizations, and the Olmec and Toltec civilizations before them, favoured tamales because they were easily brought around for hunting and traveling long distances.
This convenience of portable food obviously predates our modern era of food delivery and food dabao-ed in disposable containers. In the ancient past, it was probably inconceivable that food could be carried around in containers which could then be thrown away after one use. Hence, there was a need for food to be wrapped in some food-safe organic material like leaves.
This reminds me of an idea I once had. When I was working at the Raffles Place area, lunchtime was a pain. It was hard to find affordable food where one could sit down and eat. So, I thought it’d be great if there was a rice dish which could be easily taken away, containing delicious chunky fillings, and eaten in a clean and convenient way which won’t leave my office clothes in a mess. I thought about making chicken rice balls where the chicken meat could be wrapped in chicken rice balls, and one could just pop these balls into the mouth without having to even use any cutlery.
Then before I could turn this get rich quick scheme into reality, came QQ rice balls which were quite popular for a while (or still is) in Singapore. It’s also found in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
And then more recently, there’s this wok hey chain in malls where zi char food is served in a convenient takeaway container. Its unique proposition is that one would be usually unable to get zi char food in a mall.
Again, convenience and portability.
This, then, is my speculation about the origins of bak chang. They were made by the Chinese as a convenient way to dabao / take away food when they travelled.
This is similar to the origin of bento in Japan. “This tradition dates back to the feudal era [12th to 16th century] when soldiers carried dried rice in a small bag and ate them between battles. In the Edo era (1603-1867), the tradition of bringing food in lacquered wooden boxes to go along with hanami, tea parties and various other celebrations outside the house was established”.
Food has evolved over human history to adapt to people’s needs and wants in the social conditions of their time.
Convenience is a powerful force for evolution. The rise of fast food in the 20th century is just a more recent illustration of this.
That is not to say that the product of convenience is necessarily bad. Hamburgers were created out of convenience, but today we see expensive gourmet burgers made with good ingredients and skillful preparation.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of bak chang. Have you seen people sit down in a restaurant to eat gourmet bak chang for $30?
Perhaps it’s because of the stories we choose to believe and perpetuate. Stories like bak chang being thrown into the river. Or stories like traditional food is boring. Stories like so-called Western food is worth more than local food.
I wonder: what would be the next step in the evolution of food under the invisible guiding force of convenience?
Food in pure liquid form? Oh wait, we already have that. Drinks like Boost.
Food in pill form? There are companies working on that already.
Food delivered to your doorstep? Oh, yes I’m sure you have had lots of that recently.
But I don’t know about you. I like my food. I enjoy my food. So while food can be convenient, it should be tangible and chunky and tasty.
And that is why, folks, I’ll still have bak chang any day.