Yes, they do! And it's the edible kind I’m talking about. For example, dolmades. The word dolma loosely translates to "stuffed". Stuffed grape leaves, popular from across the Middle East to the Balkans, exist in many versions. Common among them is that rice plays a major role in the filling. Now that you can see where I’m going with the edible small packages, shall we first take a detour by way of a story before we continue on that journey.
Have you heard of the Dragon Boat Festival? Celebrated in Asian cultures, it commemorates a Chinese scholar and poet who served for the State of Chu more than two thousand years ago. Upon seeing the dire state of affairs the King had driven his Kingdom into, Qu Yuan, sadly, took his own life. Legend has it that fishermen paddled their boats to the middle of the river where Qu Yuan drowned himself, tossed in the rice packages they had made to chase the fish away from the beloved Poet’s body. Today, Zong Zi is eaten as part of the festivities to celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival, which falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar (usually around May or June).
What exactly is Zong Zi, you ask? Think of them as a big cousin of dolmades. The filling for the type of Zong Zi that I grew up eating contains glutinous rice, split mung beans, a salted egg yolk, and a small piece of pork. Bamboo leaves are used to wrap the rice filling. The packages are tied with strings and then steamed until cooked through. If you buy them from markets, they are pre-cooked so all you need to do is reheat them in a microwave oven or a steamer. The condiment of choice is a splash of soy sauce and, perhaps, a sprinkle of sugar if you like.
There are many variations of rice stuffed in leaves in many Asian cultures. While bamboo leaves are common, banana leaves or lotus leaves are also used. Also their sizes and shapes vary from cylindrical to rectangular form. The filling also differs depending on regional influences, although sticky-rice is the most popular. Like Zong Zi, these delicious rice packages are often made as part of a culture's festivities, so you may not get to taste them year-round. That said, if you go to dim sum meal, there's a good chance you'll find stuffed lotus leaves. Nestled in with the rice are Chinese sausages, dried shitake, dried shrimp, and chicken and port. As they steam, the grains gradually take on the fragrance of the meat and slowly transform themselves into morsels that burst of delicate flavors. Unadorned, rice is a simple food; to some it comes as plain. But what a difference it makes when the humble grains are given a change to engage with other ingredients. They take in the elements, yet come to their own, and transcend into something quite different all together.
To be honest I have never made my own Zong Zi because of the sheer amount of work it takes. But I do love the idea of having flavorful rice as a quick meal. So I'm going to share with you a simple rice pot recipe. There are no leaves to wrap; all ingredients go into just one cook pot. I like to savor this dish straight up. If you like, grate extra ginger; mix them with soy sauce and a few drops of toasted sesame oil. Toss in some cilantro and you got a delicious dinner on the table in about half an hour.
Chicken and Mushroom Rice Pot
1 Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breast, diced into ½” (<1 .5="" br="" cm="" cubes="">7oz (200g) Shitake and/or Crimini Mushrooms, diced
2-3 sprigs of Thyme
¾” (2cm) piece of Ginger, grated*
1 Clove of Garlic, minced
4 Thin Slices of Prosciutto
2 Cups Chicken or Mushroom Broth
1 ½ Cups Uncooked Short Grain White Rice
3 T + 1t C Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Freshly Ground Black Pepper
Soy Sauce and Toasted Sesame Oil*
Scallion, Parsley or Cilantro for garnish*
1. Marinate chicken breast with salt and black pepper and 1 teaspoon of oil. Let sit.
2. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil, at medium-high temperature, in a medium-sized cooking pot until shmmering. Add diced mushrooms and thyme sprigs. Season with salt. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes. Make room in the center of the pot, add 1 tablespoon of oil, grated ginger, garlic and prosciutto. Stir and cook for a minute. Add broth. Scrape the bottom of the pot to release any brown bits. Bring to a boil.
3. When broth boils, turn heat down to medium low. Remove thyme sprigs. Check and adjust the seasoning if needed. Stir in rice and make sure all ingredients are covered by the broth. Cover and cook in a high simmer for 8 minutes.
4. After 8 minutes, place marinated chicken pieces in a single layer on top of the rice. Do not stir the rice. Cover and cook for another 6 – 8 minutes until chicken and rice is cooked through (when chicken is no longer pink in the center). Turn off the heat. Let rest covered for 5 minutes.
5. To serve, garnish with herbs if desired. I’d like to bring the whole pot to the table. Fluff the rice and serve.
*Grate extra ginger; mix them with soy sauce and a few drops of toasted sesame oil to serve as dressing for the rice pot if you like.
I call this a one pot wonder. Hope you'll like it!