Nostalgia for a Nyonya ‘zung’: dragon boats, dumplings and the Duanwu festival

MELAKA, May 31 — I can’t remember where I attended my first dragon boat race. It could have been Singapore or maybe Hong Kong.

It certainly wasn’t in Melaka, where I grew up and where such races (at least back then) weren’t the norm. More than a dozen people huddled together on a long, narrow boat. The oars lapped in the water, the steady rhythm of the drummer at the bow hammering a rhythm for the rowers to follow.

No, there was none of that.

So even when I finally saw my first dragon boat race years later (in Penang? Taiwan?), I never associated it with the festival to which it is most closely linked: Duanwu Festival (or Duen Ng Jit in Cantonese).

Translated as Double Fifth Festival, the celebrations take place every year on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar. (This year it falls on June 3, a Friday.)

Butterfly pea flowers can be made into an extract for their natural blue color.

The Duanwu Festival commemorates the death of Qu Yuan, an ancient Chinese poet who drowned in the Miluo River when his prized Chu state fell to the rival Qin state.

Legend has it that people were so impressed by his patriotism that they threw sticky rice balls into the river so the fish wouldn’t feed on his corpse.

You see, what I associate with the Duanwu Festival is not the roar of dragon boaters as they pound the water, trying to outrun their competitors as they race towards the finish line. For me, Duen Ng Jit will always taste like Nyonya zung I grew up.

Meatballs made with love.

Now most Malaccans call this version of the sticky rice dumpling “Nyonya exchange», according to the Hokkien pronunciation. But being raised in a Cantonese family, Duanwu dumplings are always called zung.

Sticky glutinous rice, before and after adding butterfly pea flower extract.

Sticky glutinous rice, before and after adding butterfly pea flower extract.

Whether the alkaline taste kansui zung (perfect when soaked in kayak and an extra pinch of granulated sugar for crunch) or the meat yuck zung (better known as bak chang) that I had not yet appreciated as a child.

And, of course, my favorite Nyonya zung.

It’s designed for those who can’t choose between the slathered softness of kansui zung and the rich flavor of a yuck zung. Indeed, a good Nyonya zung is a question of balance: the intense sweetness of dried winter melon combined with the subtle salty taste of semi-fat, semi-lean pork.

No other sticky rice ball could ever come close.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of my darling Nyonya zung is not even its delicate flavors but its color. The sudden, unexpected splash of brilliant blue that announces its presence with authority and confidence: it’s the best zung you will never have.

This superb shade comes from the extract of a local flower, the Dull Clitoria. We know it by its more common name – blue pea flower or butterfly pea flower. Bunga telang in Malay, dok anchan in Thai.

The sweet and savory winter melon and meat filling for Nyonya's 'zung'.

The sweet and savory winter melon and meat filling for Nyonya’s ‘zung’.

The almost cobalt blue petals are as familiar to me as the taste of a Nyonya zung. One of my tasks as a pre-teen, in the weeks and days leading up to the Duanwu Festival each year, was to walk around our neighborhood and go “hunting.”

As an adult now, knowing Noma-influenced fine dining restaurants, I realize that the correct term should be “forage”, although that seems dishonest given that I was wandering around my childhood taman and not a real forest.

The task at hand was to search for butterfly pea flower bushes and “harvest” as many fresh flowers as I could find. A child might do it more discreetly than an adult, I guess, although the real reason my mum sent me on this run might just be to get me out of the house so she could have a few moments of peace. and tranquility.

Come to think of it, I never thought to ask her why she didn’t grow her own bushes of Bunga Telang at home; we certainly had enough space in our garden. (Ah, I see now. Crafty parents.)

My mother didn’t even do the Nyonya zung se. We gave these precious flowers to her aunt who made it an annual tradition to make sticky rice dumplings for the extended family in Melaka.

Maybe my mom knew my great-aunt wouldn’t take anything for it. zungso that was a small way we could help.

The iconic splashes of blue on a Nyonya

The iconic splashes of blue on a Nyonya “zung”.

The years passed, like them. The children have grown up. My mother is older now, a grandmother on several occasions. My great-aunt passed away. We didn’t have a house Nyonya zung in years. Some traditions are disappearing.

Or do they?

Over the past two years, many of us have been spending more time at home. I often take morning walks in the garden of my condominium before starting my day.

Chatting with some of my neighbors, which would have been a luxury and a rare occurrence before the pandemic.

A retired resident spends her days gardening. Its hibiscus flowers – white, orange, fuchsia and red – are extremely successful and fascinating. But closer to the ground, I notice the tiny bushes she has tended to, the tendrils wrapping around the wire frames.

Dull Clitoria. Bunga telang. Dok anchan. The butterfly pea flower.

We discuss its flowers. I tell him the story of my childhood picking. We discuss the merits of different sticky rice balls. (She pleads for an all-in bak chang; Impassive and loyal to my Nyonya zung.)

Who knows?  Someday someone might make Nyonya 'zung' using hibiscus flower extract.

Who knows? Someday someone might make Nyonya ‘zung’ using hibiscus flower extract.

Who knows? Someday someone might harvest these bright blue petals and make their own batch of Nyonya zung for the Dragon Boat Festival.

Or maybe create their own new traditions. I wonder if we could make an extract of these beautiful hibiscus flowers and make a new style of Nyonya zung for future generations?

Why not? As long as these dumplings are made with love, they will be as wonderful as dragon boat races or long walks through its old quarter, full of happy memories.

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Earnest A. Martinez