Duan Wu Festival (端午节), Dragon Boat Festival, Dumpling Festival. Whatever name we call it, this day is about the time honoured tradition of stuffing our faces with the fragrant, savoury, and most times greasy glutinous rice dumplings we call Bak Chang (meat dumplings) in Singapore. This year’s Duan Wu Festival falls on Tuesday, 30 May, so it is an opportune time for me to share some wine pairing tips with some of the most common varieties of this ubiquitous, leave wrapped, pyramid shaped goodie. I hope as you reach out for another dumpling, you will have the chance to try out some of my recommendations.
This is the most common bak chang we see in Singapore. The glutinous rice is stir-fried with 5 spice powder (五香粉) and dark soy sauce before use. Marinated pork belly, chestnuts, dried mushrooms are added. The result is a rice dumpling that is savoury, a touch sweet and altogether jialat (Singlish for “really taxing”) if you eat more than one at one go.
I recommend pairing this bak chang with a dry sparkling wine that is medium bodied and has a good acidity balance. I want bubbles and acid to keep my mouth (and stomach) fresh while having a little bit of sugar in the wine to match the bak chang’s sweetness. A sparkling wine with Chardonnay as a component will do nicely.
The traditional Cantonese bak chang is white because no soy sauce is used to season the rice. Salt and garlic oil is used instead. Marinated pork belly, mung beans, salted eggs, mushrooms and sometimes Chinese smoked sausages (腊肠) are added to the mix. Compared to Hokkien bak chang, I find the Cantonese version less heavy.
I will go with a viognier for this dumpling. Viognier is a medium to full bodied white wine that exhibits tropical fruit notes, a slightly oily texture in the middle and a subtle bitterness at the back. If possible, I will choose a viognier that has not undergone oak aging, so that it is less creamy and more alive. I find the bitterness actually adds a very nice touch to the dumpling.
Teochew bak chang is unique in that red bean or lotus seed paste is used as the sweet filling. Sometimes, the bak chang only has the sweet filling without the meat. Here, I am talking about the one with pork in it. The best Teochew bak chang are both sweet and savoury in equal measures.
To pair with Teochew bak chang, I am careful not to choose a wine that will tip the balance to either side of the spectrum. I will go for a red wine that is medium bodied and has a good sugar level leaning towards off dry. There are not many options available, but I will recommend Lambrusco wines from Italy. Lambrusco are what I term red moscatos. While not as sweet as most moscatos are, Lambrusco do have a higher sugar level compared to most red wines even if it is supposed to be brut. The wines have savoury notes and a slight fizz to help freshen the palate.
The Peranakans are expert cooks and their changs bear testament to their skills. Wrapped in pandan leaves instead of bamboo leaves, the rice gets a beautiful fragrance. Candied winter melon strips are used to impart a sweetness to the dumpling. 5 spice powders are added and chunky bits of lean pork are used instead of minced meat. The result is an exciting amalgamation of flavours and texture.
I find Nonya bak chang to be delicate in taste. For this, I recommend a low alcohol, off dry Riesling. The Riesling aromas matches the aromas of the pandan leaves and the flavours go well with the 5 spice powders used in the bak chang. I want the wine to be a little sweet to complement the candied strips but not too much to make it sticky. At the same time, the low alcohol keeps everything in check without overpowering the delicate flavours of the dumpling.
Jian Sui Zong, Kan Tsui Zong or Kee Chang
These are alkaline dumplings treated in lye water to give them a yellow tint and a distinct flavour. There are no meat fillings within and are usually eaten by dipping in sugar or drenched in Gula Melaka (palm sugar). These dumplings are an acquired taste but at the same time, the easiest to pair with wine. I will go full on with a good dessert wine or even a tawny port. The Mount Horrocks Cordon Cut Riesling is great if you still want to feel fresh after eating and drinking, or you can go for the Penfolds Club Tawny Port if you are not going back to the office the next day.
Do let me know what you think of my recommendations, or if you have any suggestions of your own. As always, we are here to learn. Cheers.