Spring is officially here now, but with the ever-changing weather we had these last weeks, added to the fact it was a stressful period for me, I’ve been in need of soul-satisfying dishes. And rice is exactly what I find myself thinking about in these moments : don’t you think there’s nothing so comforting ?
However, rice has long not been part of my culinary habits : my parents seldom cooked rice, or with rice. The first risotto I ate had been cooked by myself, and I didn’t even know about fried rice. But some two years ago, my habits changed as encountered Asian, actually mostly Chinese food culture. This turning point happened when my dear almost-hubby, who had lived a year in China before we met, bought me as birthday gift a book about Chinese cookery. At that time, I wasn’t much curious about Asian culture despite his efforts to get me interested into it, but I had already developped a serious passion for cooking. That is why he expected to please me, since I’m all but a picky eater, and always happy to make new discoveries about food. But the poor thing, who had only few sweet memories about Chinese food, surely couldn’t expect I would got so very passionated about it ! Indeed, I happened to cook almost more Asian than Western dishes since then, so much so my fiancé sometimes teases me, saying that one day, I’m gonna wake up with slanted eyes…
More seriously, in so doing, I have experienced what "acquired tastes" can be : I sometimes find myself craving previously weird foods for me (such as black mushrooms, dried shrimps, sweet sausages, lily buds, salted or century eggs, red dates, wax gourd and so on) just as well as foods that had always been familiar to me ! That is also how over time, I grew fond of the flavour of rice, which furthermore has the quality to be a healthy food, easily digestible (it especially was the only thing I could eat without having my stomach aching when I got sick during winter holidays). I even started eating congee for breakfast some time ago ! Besides, I discovered there are endless ways to cook with rice.
This recipe is one of these ways that I find very interesting. Nuò mǐ jī, or lo mai gai in Cantonese, is a Cantonese food classic, part of the meals traditionally served at dim sum restaurants. I know most English-speakers are already quite familiar with this concept of varied meals served in small portions along with tea, originally in relation with the rituals surrounding this beverage in Asia. This recipe may thus not sound very original to you, and I guess you might find similar ones elsewhere… But the knowledge about dim sum, and Chinese culinary culture on the whole, needs to be improved in France. Plus, I love how the concept of dim sum (literally meaning "touch the heart") perfectly suits my feeling about this meal: it is just like wearing a warm, soft and comfy knitted pullover.
To be more specific, nuò mǐ jī is based on glutinous or sticky rice, that actually isn’t that sticky (at least not like wrongly cooked rice). I love the slightly sweet and fragrant taste of this rice on its own; however, it’s here given added flavour from a rich filling, mostly constituted of meaty ingredients. This version is a most traditional recipe I adapted from a reference book of Andrea Nguyen’s : it includes Chinese black mushrooms, shrimps, sweet sausage, and especially chicken – the meaning of the word "jī" featured in the name of the dish (if you don’t know about the ingredients of Asian food and want to learn more, I invite you to take a look at several great blogs such as "Taste Hong Kong", "Appetite for China", "Rasa Malaysia" or "Steamy Kitchen" – the links are on the sidebar). However, I choose to subsitute dried shrimps for fresh ones, and to increase the amount of rice as I found it was a bit insufficient to be stuffed as needed. And though it surely is more often considered a simple snack or part of a multicourse meal, the thing is I like having it as a full (and hearty) meal on its own, since it brings both proteins and grains. Add a little salad and you get a well balanced meal !
But the real trick with this meal is that the rice, encasing the filling, is itself stuffed into a dried lotus leaf that helps holding its shape while giving it a subtile tea-like fragrance. This kind of dumpling is both somewhat an amazing thing for guests and a convenience food to be used in lunch boxes. In her book, Andrea Nguyen is right to say opening the leaf and smelling the fragrant steam that comes from it is on its own an enjoyable experience, so comforting ! And the mixed flavours melt perfectly, though I’d say I slightly prefer zòng zi, a festival food made of glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves and long boiled (instead of being precooked and steamed), to which I encourage you to give a try too.
Hope this (perhaps a bit too long) description has increased your interest for making this recipe, which would dive you into the flavours of Chinese food. Don’t be worried about the seemingly unending ingredients list ! They’re not that hard to find, and anyway, feel free to go for other fillings : the usual ones feature char siu, roast duck, salted egg yolks, or chestnut, but you might be more imaginative ! Besides, if lotus leaves aren’t available for you, you might replace them with greaseproof paper, cut out to resemble the prepared lotus leaves and to wrap the packets same way (see below) ; the taste and impression produced would be slightly different, but still good.
I admit the preparation is quite long, but I can assure you I took me by far longer to write this post than to make the recipe itself ! And it is much more satisfying than making a bowl of instant noodles… For a slightly faster variation, maybe less authentic but just as tasty, you might consider mixing the rice and filling together before wrapping them in the lotus leaves. I only recommend you to read well the whole recipe before starting to cook, and if you like it, don’t hesitate making more at once and keeping some in your freezer for the lazy or hectic days. And so, here it is !
Ingredients (yields 4 small parcels, serving 4 as a snack or starter, 2 as a main course with a light salad on the side) :
Note: the undermentioned ingredients are to find quite easily in any specialty, Asian grocery (though maybe with needed help from the grocer !) ; don’t hesitate clicking the links below and/or search the Internet to learn more about them.
- 2 dried lotus leaves (plus extra in case there are many holes in them or you aren’t comfortable with wrapping them) – they’re folded in half, looking like large greyish green fans, of about 20-inch /50 cm in diameter
- 1 1/2 cup sticky rice, aka glutinous rice or sweet rice (about 280 gr)
- 3/4 cup water (about 200 ml)
- 1/3 tsp salt
- 100g (3 ounces) boneless chicken thigh (I like keeping skin on, but you might remove it to your liking) – Note : if you’re using drumsticks for some recipe, you might consider keeping the thigh tops for this very recipe since they’re easier to bone and chop (here, I used 2 thigh tops that I cut into 4 chunks each)
- 1 Chinese sweet sausage, either plain or flavoured with five-spice (about 30gr)
- 2-3 small Chinese dried black mushrooms, aka shiitakes (7-8 gr)
- 10-15 gr dried shrimp (the pink, bigger sized ones – see picture below) - if you don’t like them or if they’re unavailable for you, substitute 50g shelled and deveined medium shrimp (as in the original recipe)
- 1 small garlic clove
- 1 thin slice of ginger, peeled
- 1 tbsp cooking oil (sunflower or canola) plus more for greasing the leaves
For the chicken’s marinade
- 1/4 tsp cornstarch
- 1/2 tsp oyster sauce (don’t be put off by this name : it actually tastes more of a smoky barbecue sauce, with a slightly stronger "umami" edge, than of oyster)
- 1/4 tsp Asian-style (toasted) sesame oil
- 1/2 tsp Chinese cooking rice wine (Shaoxing or Hua Tiao) - or substitute dry sherry
- 1/8 tsp sugar
Seasonings for the filling
- 1 tsp cornstarch
- 1 tsp oyster sauce
- 3/4 tsp rice wine
- 3/4 tsp light soy sauce
- 1/4 tsp dark soy sauce
- 1/4 tsp sugar
- pinch of white pepper
- 2 tbsp (1/8 cup) water or soaking liquid from the mushrooms (see below)
The important thing is, choose well and prepare properly each ingredient. But even though some patience is needed to do so, no particular cooking skill is required.
preparing the mushrooms
The night before, rinse the mushrooms, cover them with water, and let stand overnight at room temperature. If you forgot or couldn’t take care of it in advance enough, allow the soaking a minimum of 2 hours (and use rather lukewarm water) : the mushrooms should look plump and feel spongy, with no tough part noticeable to the touch.
When ready to start preparing the filling, throw away the soaking liquid, possibly reserving 2 tbsp for the seasoning sauce if you like the black mushrooms’ taste. Squeeze gently the mushrooms to get rid of excess moisture, remove and discard the stem, then dice them.
preparing the other fillings : lap cheong, dried shrimps and chicken
This step is even easier. In a shallow plate or bowl, combine the ingredients for the marinade, mixing thoroughly. Add the chicken (previously cut into 1/2-inch / 1cm dices) and stir to coat well. Let it marinate at room temperature for 15 minutes.
Soak the dried shrimps for 10-15 mns to soften, then discard water and blot dry or air dry them.
If using fresh shrimps, chop them into similar pieces to the chicken dices.
During the marinating and soaking times, prepare the lap cheong : remove the skin if it seems somewhat dry or unpleasantly thick (you would also be able to cut and cook it more easily) and dice it into similar pieces to the previous ingredients.
To finish, mince the garlic and ginger and make the seasoning sauce by combining the ingredients and stirring well to dissolve the cornstarch.
completing the filling
When all filling ingredients are ready, heat the cooking oil in a pan or wok over high heat and make sure to have them all at hand, near the stove (as well as the sauce), to allow quick and fuss-free stir-frying.
Sauté garlic and ginger for a few moments, until aromatic. Add the chicken and keep sautéing for 1 minute or less, stirring constantly, until it is evenly browned but barely cooked. Add the diced sausage and mushrooms and the dried shrimps (if using fresh shrimps, add them next and cook for 1 mn or until their flesh color turns pink) and cook again briefly to allow the sausage to release its fat.
Pull the fillings to the sides of the pan or wok, give the seasoning sauce a last good stir and pour it into the center of the pan. If the liquid sets too briskly, take the pan off the heat, since you need to continue cooking for about 30 seconds, until the chicken is cooked through and the whole filling coated with sauce, holding together.
Transfer to a bowl or plate and set aside to cool completely. At this stage, you might choose to cover and refrigerate the mixture, since it can be prepared up to 2 days in advance. Just think of returning it to room temperature before using.
When ready to assemble the parcels (see below), divide the filling into 4 equal portions.
preparing the rice
At least 2 hours before cooking it, put the rice in a shallow dish and add water to cover it by 1 inch (2cm). Let stand at room temperature, overnight is the best.
Drain the rice and rinse it in the strainer under cold running water. Let it drain again, and give it a good shake just before starting to steam it.
This could be done of several ways, at best with a steamer or any steamer basket (in bamboo or a pressure cooker’s) and a steamproof dish. In this case, put the rice in a high-sided round cake pan or metal bowl that fits into your steamer tray, stir in the salt and add the 3/4 cup water ; place it into the steamer tray and steam over boiling water for 25 minutes. After about 8 mns, stir with chopsticks or spatula to ensure even cooking. Once the rice is done, turn the heat off, give the rice a stir, and let it sit covered for 10 minutes to finish absorbing moisture and softening ; if it still seems dry, sprinkle 1-2 tbsp of water onto the hot rice, cover and let it rest for a few minutes.
Note : when steaming glutinous rice, I generally proceed more simply by spreading the rice (soaked overnight) evenly on the bottom of a steamer tray over gauze or greaseproof paper and place it over boiling water for 40 mns, just flipping the rice on the other side after 20 mns ; if needed, salt could be sprinkled at the end of steaming. Next time I’ll make the Nuò Mǐ Jī, I think I would opt for this method as I find the resulting rice "pancake" would be easier to section into the small patties we’ll need to assemble the lotus leaf packets (see below).
I know you also might cook glutinous rice in a rice cooker, but I recommend then to refer to the instructions of the manufacturer concerning the amount of water to add and the cooking time.
The good news is that even though you have no specific equipment, you don’t have to give up the recipe : there are other ways to steam rice, just as Leela from "She Simmers" brilliantly explained it in this article. Without added water, you just need to soak it longer to have it getting tender enough. Before I was lucky enough to have my (nearly professional) steamer, I also used to apply another steaming method, accessible for everyone : in your bigger pot, place a ramequin, bottom facing up ; pour in water to cover the bottom of the pot by about 1 inch, but no to reach the top of the turned-over ramekin ; place over this one a plate or bowl, smaller in diameter than the pot and topped with the food to steam. Bring the water to the boil and cover the pot to get the steam circulating inside it. This allows you to add water to the rice, as in the first aforementioned method.
In any case, be careful to the look of the grains : you want them to be translucent and somewhat pearly, soft and sticking together (but not messy). At the end of cooking, set aside the steamer basket and let cool the rice a few moments to be able to handle it more easily, then divide it into 8 equal portions.
preparing the lotus leaves
During the steaming time of the rice, you might finally take care of the lotus leaves.
Cut each leaf down the middle into 2 double-layered fanlike pieces (1).
Put them in a big pot, cover with water and bring it gently to the boil, with a lid on to make sure the leaves stay submersed. If needed, turn them once or twice to ensure even reconstitution. After having let them cool a little, remove the leaves from the water, rinse them under fresh running water and shake off excess water.
For an variation which keeps the leaves from a loss of flavour, you might also soak them in warm water until they’re pliable enough, before rinsing them as .
Use scissors to cut off about 1 1/2 inches (4 cm) of the tough pointy end, which is harder to fold (2).
Separate the two layers of each piece of leaf by cutting where the leaf was folded to be packaged (3). You should end up with 8 pieces of leaf (each one representing one-quarter of the original whole leaf).
To finish, trim the excessively ragged edges if any.
Note that if you soaked extra leaves, you might use them to make other recipes like this one, that I like much.
putting together and wrapping the stuffed rice packetss
The last step is the simplest, but I did a little drawing tutorial to make it clearer. However, I’m now feeling somewhat foolish because I just realized while writing this recipe that everytime I made lotus leaf wraps, I did not pay attention enough to the right way of wrapping them, and used to put the veined side inside instead of outside ! I’m thus sorry of publishing a recipe I didn’t master enough but at least, you won’t be making the same mistake as me…
For each packet, arrange two pieces of lotus leaf darker side facing up (that is the non-veined side) on your work surface with an overlap of about 5 inches (10-15cm) the narrow ends pointing toward you : you want it to look like a large open fan.
Smear a little oil over the surface to prevent the rice from sticking.
Wet or grease slightly your hands and take a portion of rice. Place it on the center of the leaf, shaping it into a 3 by 4-inch (7×10 cm) rectangle.
Center 1 portion of the filling atop the rice and cover it with another rectangle-shaped portion of rice.
Wrap the leaf pieces as a gift : bring the bottom portion of the leaf up and over the rice. Keeping one hand on the center to steady the packet, fold one of the side flaps of leaf toward the other side. Repeat with the other side flap, tightening the whole.
Roll it up to get a rectangular parcel, cutting the peeking out part of the leaf (if any) or tucking it in the main fold to enclose the filling more securely and give it a neat shape.
You want it to look like this (but with the veins visible) :
Repeat with the remaining leaf pieces, rice and filling.
Place the done parcels in a steamer tray, a bamboo basket or else (see above for tips about steaming). If you consider not eating all the parcels right away, you might refrigerate the extras (in an airtight plastic container or ziploc bag) or freeze them (individually wrapped in cling film, then put together into a ziploc bag). They would keep for up to 3 days in the fridge and up to 3 weeks in the freezer. In these cases, return them to room temperature before steaming (or steam them 5-10 mns more : I tried it out and it worked).
To allow the flavours to melt and heat them through, steam the packets over boiling water for 15 minutes, until soft and fragrant. If you want the flavour of the lotus leaf to be more perceptible, steam longer.
To savour a nuò mǐ jī, unwrap the lotus leaf and dig your chopsticks, fork or spoon into the hot and perfumed rice… (but do keep in mind the leaf is inedible though flavourful !)
Màn màn chī / Maan jung ! (that is : enjoy ! - hope I spelled it properly…)