Every kid who grows up in Wisconsin considers Chicago The Big Time, usually with a certain amount of contempt and possibly even undisguised hatred. Chicagoans in turn regard Wisconsin residents as ice-fishing hicks and drunks. Kermit the Frog-style man on the street interviews in both cities tell the tale pretty quickly. Mention you’re from Wisconsin anywhere in Chicagoland and you’ll get one of three loud responses, the first two with a mocking accent: “eh, dere,” “ya der hey,” or “Cheesehead,” each of which means, roughly, “go home, Sconnie.” Ask a Wisconsinite for his or her opinions on Chicagoans and you will be treated to a tirade about FIBs, particularly their incompetence behind the wheel when driving outside their home town and inexplicable support for sports franchises like the Cubs and the Bears. If you aren’t from Wisconsin and don’t know what a FIB is, try sounding it out with various swear words at the beginning and end until you get it right. Hint: the middle word is “Illinois” and there are two possible correct answers.
Even so, most of us if pressed would admit to intense jealousy over Chicago’s cultural opportunities and urbanity. My own family made the pilgrimage a couple of times a year, to visit the museums down by Soldier Field – the Museum of Science and Industry was my favorite, with its giant walk-through model of a human heart – or window-shop on Michigan Avenue. We never stayed more than a day or so at a time, though, and Chicago remained a mystery to me for years, even though only 90 minutes separate it from Milwaukee. Once I got my driver’s license, I sometimes begged off Saturday night parties to drive to Chicago, alone, tossing forty cents after forty cents into each of the toll booth baskets the way down just so I could cruise up and down Lakeshore Drive, and all around the Loop (at least once forgetting to save any cash for the drive back). At the time it seemed the height of adventure to parallel park my mom’s 1977 Olds Toronado and walk around downtown at 10 pm looking for a Vienna beef dog. After graduating from school, I even took a job in Chicago, living on Clark Street right next to the infamous Wieners Circle. The Circle, as habitués like to call it, serves great char-dogs and cheese fries but I avoided it from Thursday night through Sunday evening, when it attracts the very worst people in Chicago. It all comes back to FIBs, after all.
Now, my dad traveled to Chicago on his own from time to time, and he often returned from those trips with a plastic bag full of pyramid-shaped, bamboo leaf-wrapped bundles from Chinatown. The Taiwanese word for those bundles is bah-chàng, and they were something of a special occasion item in our home, partly because any food that comes in a wrapper seems inherently fun, like a present, but mostly because bah-chàng are damn tasty. I associate bah-chàng completely with Chicago because we only ever ate them when he brought them back from his visits, much as we only ever ate lobster when he came home from Boston, or crabs after his trips to the DC area. In any case, at such times, my mother would set a big metal steamer over a pot of boiling water to reheat the bah-chàng, filling the kitchen with the sort of green-woodsy, slightly floral scent of bamboo leaves. Cut the string, and unwind the moist parcel to release a pyramid of glutinous rice, filled with soy-marinated pork belly, black mushroom, pungent dried shrimp, and a salted duck egg yolk. I visited Chicago for work last week, and spent so much time thinking about bah-chàng that I had to make them as soon as I came home.
Smoked pig and peanut rice dumplings
Only two ingredients are really mandatory for bah-chàng: glutinous (sticky) rice and some sort of leaf for wrapping. This rice dumpling combines these two basic bah-chàng ingredients with American Southern ingredients. Using bamboo leaves to wrap the dumpling lends an unmistakably Taiwanese aura to the dish, even though nearly all of the other ingredients come straight from the South. Sautéing the glutinous rice after soaking helps the grains retain some distinctness and lends some additional flavor from the shallot and fat – skipping this step ensures the rice will stick together more, yielding an almost tamale-like texture. Both preparations are acceptable. If you want to try this out with other things you find in the freezer, know that any fatty meat (like chicken thighs, pork shoulder, etc) works well.
2 c glutinous rice (note: you may find both black and white glutinous rice. Black cooks to a deep purple and makes for a striking and unconventional presentation)
12 bamboo leaves (alternatively, you may try lotus leaves or banana leaves, each of which lends its own distinctive flavor)
1/2 lb pork belly, cured and smoked as for bacon, or 1/2 lb slab bacon
2 tbsp usukuchi soy sauce
1 1/2 tbsp American corn whiskey, like Jim Beam or Jack Daniels
2 tsp sorghum syrup
1/4 tsp ground white pepper
1/4 tsp piment d’espelette
1 c shelled boiled green peanuts (see below)
2 shallots, sliced thinly
1 1/2 tbsp bacon fat
dozen pickled ramps, sliced in half lengthwise (substitute pickled onion)
Rinse the rice several times in cold water and then leave to soak in a bowl, with about an inch of water to cover, for 3 hours.
Bring a pot of water to the boil and add the bamboo leaves. Boil for about five minutes until soft and remove from heat. Keep the leaves in water until nearly ready to use.
Slice the smoked pork belly crosswise into six equal pieces (about 1/3″ each). Combine the soy, whiskey, sorghum, white pepper, and espelette and marinate the sliced belly for about an hour. Meanwhile, if you haven’t already shelled the boiled peanuts, do so.
Drain the rice well and leave to sit for about 10 minutes. Place a large sauté pan over medium heat and, when hot, add the bacon fat. Add the sliced shallots and allow to brown on both sides until golden. Remove the shallots but leave behind the hot bacon fat.
Add the drained rice and sauté until each grain is well coated with fat, about 3 minutes. You may skip this frying step for a more compact, tamale-like texture.
Assemble the dumplings. Drain the bamboo leaves and overlap two, with the leaves slightly off-center as to form a long and narrow “X.” Fold in the middle to make a cone.
Divide the rice into six portions and add half of a portion inside the cone, making an indent in the bottom to contain fillings; press the rice up around the insides of the cone. Add a spoonful of the boiled peanuts, a slice of smoked pork belly, some fried shallot and slices of ramp. Fold the pork over if necessary to fit and top with some more peanuts and the remaining portion of the rice.
Drizzle with about 1 1/2 tsp of the pork marinade. Fold the tops of the leaves over the cone to close securely, and tie well with kitchen twine. You should have essentially a pyramid (tetrahedron) shape.
Set in a steamer over boiling water and steam for about 3 hours (a little more won’t hurt). At this point, you can serve immediately or allow to cool and chill for up to four days. They also freeze well. Reheat in a steamer over boiling water to serve. For enhanced Southern-style deliciousness, serve with some pickled peaches.
Boiled green peanuts
Green peanuts are fresh young peanuts still in the shell. The kind of peanuts you find in cocktail mix or even ostensibly raw in bulk have been cured through air-drying once they reach maturity, and do not taste the same. These are only generally available in-season (typically summer), and even then only where there exists sufficient demand, as they are perishable.
There are few exercises more frustrating than shelling freshly boiled peanuts. The shell sticks to the papery skin, and the peanut within tends to mush somewhat under the pressure of peeling. When making these dumplings, I discovered serendipitously that frozen boiled peanuts shell easily – probably something about the water freezing between the shell and the skin, expanding it just enough to prevent sticking. If you are lucky enough to find fresh green peanuts and boil your own as directed below, do yourself a solid and freeze them in a single layer on a sheet pan overnight before thawing and shelling. As a bonus, any you aren’t ready to use right then you can freeze, sealed tightly in a plastic bag.
For the very simplest preparation, you can simply boil in salted water (about 1/4 c per gallon), but the vinegar and spices lend a very slightly pickled character that tastes great with the fatty, sweet nut. If you don’t feel like dealing with boiling your own, or green peanuts aren’t available in your area (likely in most parts of the country, especially out of season), you can buy them canned in the soul food/Southern section of your supermarket, or by mail order. You’ll probably still have to shell them yourself.
1 lb fresh green peanuts
3 tbsp salt
2 tbsp seafood boil spices + 1 tsp celery salt, or 1 tbsp Old Bay + 1/2 tsp allspice berries and 1/2 tsp black peppercorn
1/4 c cider vinegar
1 gallon water
Bring everything to a boil and simmer, covered, for about 6 hours, stirring from the bottom occasionally to ensure even cooking. Test a peanut to see if it is cooked through to the center and if not, continue cooking a while longer until it is cooked through.
Drain and chill immediately. I recommend freezing and thawing before shelling, but once they cool, you can attempt to shell them right away.