April passed by like a whirlwind. Work was so busy and stressful that I felt constricted to the point of suffocation. But I still made time to be in the kitchen despite the hectic schedule. Baking gives my mind respite, as it brings me to a mental place where the only thing that needed my attention was the amalgamation of butter and sugar in the stand mixer. The high pitched whirring of the mixer evokes a sense of calmness and concentration that gives my mind peace, giving my brain a chance to recuperate and myself to unravel from the stresses of the day. During this time, it was sweets that dominated my kitchen, and the outcomes were a flurry of cookies, biscottis, and even ice cream.
The month of May has now arrived. Birds are singing again and the grass is getting greener. As the thermometer creeps higher day by day and my free time slowly comes back again, I finally have the time to tend to my longing of returning to writing.
My first plan of attack is to try the recipe I got from my grandmother back in December for 茶粿, which literally means “tea cake” or “tea time snack”. It is a traditional Hakka snack, and legend has it that Hakka women would get together to talk, and to pass time, they would gather around make these dumpling-like snacks together. I don’t exactly know when I learned about this snack. Perhaps it was my mom who told me about it. The first time I ate one was at my grandparents’ home in Hong Kong. They had just returned from one of their regular visits to their hometown in China and brought back “a hundred” of 茶粿 (Or so my granddad said. I don’t know how he managed) that they made with relatives. They are these dim sum like dumplings with a chewy exterior made with glutinous rice flour, filled with either a sweet or savoury filling, and wrapped with either a bamboo or banana leaf. My mom told me that as a child, my grandmother would make 茶粿 for her and my uncles and aunt. She told me that her favourite filling is the savoury one, made with black-eyed peas, Chinese cured bacon, ground pork, and dried shrimp. Funny enough, my mom never made 茶粿 herself, stating that it is too much hassle. Seeing that I was eager to replicate my grandma’s recipe, my mom encouragingly directed me to call my grandma.
I called my grandmother on Christmas Day last year. I said that I want to ask her for her 茶粿 recipe, which surprised her because she thought it was just a humble, easy recipe, and so why on earth would anyone be interested in it? I guess what she didn’t understand is that to me, her recipe is a gift, a treasure, passed down from grandmother to granddaughter, and I would be so proud to be able to remake this for my mom.
As cooking was my grandma’s second nature (and I suppose it is so for most women of her generation), she recounted the recipe to me with such a huge lack of detail that it was just simply “Cook the filling. Wrap the filling with the dough, and then steam it.” No measurements, no cooking time, no detailed step-by-step instructions. It was all intuition, and to her, common sense.
After some coaxing and investigative questioning, I finally got enough details to put the recipe together. There are many variations to this snack, from the type of flour, the type of filling, to how to wrap the 茶粿 for steaming (most people just place it on a small piece of bamboo leaf, but my grandma wraps it instead, perhaps to make the 茶粿 more portable), but this is my grandma’s recipe. There is no right or wrong. Just purely tradition. Her tradition, which, in order to fill the gaps in her recipe, I probably inadvertently added my own signature to it. I guess this is how tradition is passed on from one generation to the next, by word of mouth, evolving with the addition of the new habits as it moves along with the times.
This tea cake takes time, patience, and most of all, practice. Knowing how much filling is enough, the pliability of the dough, the size of the tea cake, and how to close the dough and assemble the tea cake is difficult to describe in writing. The knowledge can only be acquired through gradual accumulation of wisdom from a number of practices.
Hakka Tea Cake 客家茶粿 (Savoury-type, with Black Eye Peas for filling)
Ingredients – for the filling
- 1/2 cup of black-eye peas
- 100 grams of Chinese-style preserved pork belly – diced into small pieces, about 2mm in size
- 40 grams of dried shrimp – soaked in room temperature until softened, about 30 minutes
- 1/2 lb of ground pork (marinated with soy sauce, sugar, corn starch, and cooking oil – the cooking oil is to make the ground pork less dry when stir frying, ensuring that it the ground pork will not end up in large clumps)
- 2 teaspoons of Five Spice Powder
Ingredients – for the wrapping/exterior
- 1 cup of glutinous rice flour
- 1 kettle of boiling hot water
- several tablespoons of flavourless cooking oil (such as grapeseed oil or vegetable oil)
- 12 bamboo leaves or banana leaves, plus several more for lining the steamer, soaked in room temperature water until soft, about 30min-60min
To make the filling
- Boil the black-eyed peas on medium heat until soft enough to squeeze with finger, and when eaten, powdery enough, approx 15-20 minutes. Strain the black-eyed peas and let it cool to room temperature.
- Heat some cooking oil in a wok. Once heated, add the dried shrimp and Chinese preserved pork belly and stirfry until fragrant. Add the marinate ground pork and black-eyed peas and stirfry. Once all heated, add the five spice powder and stir again until evenly distributed. You could add some soy sauce to taste if it is not seasoned enough.
- Remove the contents of the wok from the heat and place it in a separate mixing bowl. Let it chill to room temperature.
To make the dough
- Working with 1/2 cup at a time. Add 1/2 cup of glutinous rice flour into a large mixing bowl. (We work with 1/2 cup at a time because the dough becomes less pliable as the hot water cools, making it more difficult to work with Working in small batches eliminates this problem).
- Gradually add hot water to the rice flour and mix with your hand in a kneading motion (if the water is too hot, then you could start of by mixing with a wooden spoon, and then when it’s cooler, knead with your hands). Continue to slowly add water and mix/knead until the flour turns into one large dough ball, there are no more loose clumps, and when squeezed together doesn’t fall apart. To test if there is enough water, take a small piece and squeeze it flat between your thumb. There is enough water if the dough is pliable that it doesn’t crack when squeezed. If not, then add a little bit more water until the dough is pliable.
- Turn the dough out on to a non-stick work surface and knead 2-3 times to ensure the water is well incorporated in the dough.
- Divide the dough into 6 even pieces, each rolled into a ball, about the size a bit larger than a ping pong ball.
To assemble the Hakka Tea Cake
- Take one dough ball. With the muscle below your thumb, press the dough ball into a flat round disc about 2mm thick, rotating the dough as you go to ensure that it stays in a circular shape.
- Place the dough round on the palm of your hand and add about 3-4 teaspoons of the filling in the middle.
- Wrap the filling and close the dough round by squeezing the top together, making sure that the dough wraps tightly around the filling and removing any excess from the opening. Flip the tea cake on your palm so that the opening is now on the bottom/sitting on your palm, and make several turns/pats so that the closure is smoothed.
To cook the Hakka Tea Cake
- Wipe the bamboo leaves dry with a paper towel. Brush one side of each bamboo leaf with flavourless cooking oil.
- Roll the bamboo leaf around the tea cake, then fold the underside of the leaf inward (like wrapping a Christmas present) so it looks like a cup. Place the tea cake in the steamer, and place the open side of the leaf against the steamer to keep the leaf from unraveling. (the weight of the tea cake will keep the underside closed).
- Boil the water in a high stock pot, with a steam rack inside. Once water is boiled, put the bamboo steamer inside the pot. At medium to medium/high heat, steam for 13 minutes or until the flour is cooked and looks translucent.
- Turn off the heat, and remove from heat. Leave for 5-10 minutes to let the dough rest. Remove the steamer and leave the on the counter to let the tea cake sit at room temperature until cool, about 1 hour. Don’t peel the leaves from the tea cake when it is still piping hot (I know it is tempting!) because the dough is yet not settled yet. Peeling now will easily rip the dough from the tea cake and ruin all your hard work.
- The tea cake can be eaten at room temperature. You can store it in the fridge. If so, reheat it by steaming for 5 – 10 minutes before eating.
This post/recipe is first published and seen on http://www.YuenShan.com.