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Authentic Hakka Kansui-Zong or Lye Dumplings With Orchard Ashes

Rice dumplings are a traditional food to celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival. Apart from the common savory rice dumplings, there is a sweet version popular in southern China called kansui-zong (鹼水粽) or lye dumplings (kee-chang 鹼粽 in Taiwan). They usually don’t have any fillings but are enjoyed dipping or sprinkled with cane sugar, thus are also known as sweet dumplings.

Lye is an alkaline liquor leached from wood ashes, typically used in making soap or preserving food. In our story here however, it is leached from orchard ashes — best kept secret from the local Hakka traditions — for making kansui-zong or ash-water rice dumplings (灰水粽).

Homemade Kansui-Zong 

This year around the Dragon Boat Festival (端午節), our reporters visited a group of Wai Tau locals (圍頭鄉民) and Hakka villagers around Yuen Kong area along Kam Sheung Road (錦上路元崗) in Yuen Long (元朗), to explore authentic homemade kansui-zong.

Homemade Hakka-style “orchard-ash-water (lye) dumplings” have a unique aroma one can’t find elsewhere. As you unwrap the bamboo leaves, glittering and translucent golden grains are revealed, its fragrant and succulent taste definitely sets it apart from those kansui-zong made commercially with chemically treated rice.

Epoch Times Photo
Glutinous rice turns golden yellow after soaking overnight in lye produced from leached orchard ashes. (Benson Lau/The Epoch Times)

A Hakka Secret

The process of preparing lye (ash-water) – key ingredient for making kansui-zong, takes one to two weeks. From burning of woods collected from local orchards, branches from lychee, longan, wampee and guava trees, to collecting sieved ashes from daily cooking and store them carefully away from contamination, it all calls a lot of care.

When the time comes, the villagers would filter specially prepared water through these ashes to obtain the lye (ash-water) and soak glutinous rice in it the night before making the dumplings.

Time consuming preparation processes for traditional goodies, like many other things from the old days, with no doubt have become rarities in the modern world.

More Than A Tradition

Seven or eight years ago, a group of like-minded Hakka ladies from the Yuen Kong neighborhood formed a “Arts and Crafts Heritage” community group, with the clear purpose of keeping Hakka food and craft traditions alive.

The group gets together during different festivals to make all kinds of old-time Hakka delicacies such as rice cookies, chicken in yellow (rice) wine, stuffed tea cakes, glutinous ball (mochi), ash-water rice dumplings, even including homemade rice wines and lychee wines. It is the villagers’ wish to pass on the arts and tradition of these Hakka delicacies to future generations. 

Epoch Times Photo
Unlike savory rice dumplings which are pyramid-shaped, Hakka ash-water dumplings made by Yuen Kong ladies are flat and rectangular. (Benson Lau/The Epoch Times)

Wisdom in Plant Ash Cooking

Plant ashes are mainly composed of calcium carbonate, but they are also rich in potassium, phosphorus and trace metal elements such as iron, magnesium, zinc, and copper. Villagers use plant ashes as organic fertilizer to enrich their agricultural soil and neutralize acidified land.

Leached water from plant ashes are sometimes used in food preparation, not just in traditional Chinese cooking but South American people also soak and cook their corns in an alkaline solution to preserve nutrition and reduce the risk of mycotoxins.

Epoch Times Photo
One lady told us keeping the ashes from contamination also takes a lot of effort. (Benson Lau/The Epoch Times)

One lady we met, Amy, warns about storing the ashes. “In the past every women has a place to stash their ashes in order to prevent contamination.” Surprisingly, the contamination comes from their friends with paws.

“Cats and dogs like to do their ‘business’ on the ashes. That is when contamination occurs and ruins the entire stash!”

Epoch Times Photo
Villagers use an all-natural filter system by lining a bamboo basket with thatches and putting a ceramic pot under it. (Benson Lau/The Epoch Times)

Health Benefits

Auntie Ying demonstrated for us the organic leaching process.

First, ficus leaves are collected and boiled. “Dumplings we make benefit health since ficus leaves can clear the heat and detoxifying the body.” Ying explained.

Then, a bamboo basket is lined with thatches and placed on top of a ceramic pot, creating an all-natural filter system.

Epoch Times Photo
Preparing water using ficus leaves. (Benson Lau/The Epoch Times)
Epoch Times Photo
Pomelo leaves are added to the basket to symbolize purification. (Benson Lau/The Epoch Times)

Drive Away ‘Evil Energy’

Next, there is the traditional ceremony to “bless and purify” just before leaching. Pomelo leaves are added to the basket and the villagers would pray together for a successful production.

There is a traditional belief that festive food needs to be protected from “evil energy” (邪氣). The word “evil” in Chinese medicine terms represent anything deviated from “righteous”. Pomelo leaves are believed to be able to drive away evil energies. Traditional food production is indeed also an exquisite art.

Interesting to know that scientists in recent years have also confirmed that pomelo leaves contain flavonoids which are antibacterial and anti-inflammatory.

Epoch Times Photo
It takes 24 to 48 hours to leach the orchard ashes. (Benson Lau/The Epoch Times)

Finally, orchard ashes are spread evenly on top of the thatches and pomelo leaves in the basket and water from boiling the ficus leave are gently poured into this natural filter, until the ashes are completely submerged.

As water slowly soaks through the ashes, drip-drop drip-drop, ash-solution is slowly collected into the ceramic pot below.

Epoch Times Photo
Water from boiling the ficus leaves is poured gently into the thatches lined basket. It slowly soaks through the orchard ashes and drips into the ceramic pot below. (Benson Lau/The Epoch Times)

The leaching process would lasts a whole night. The ash-water produced is naturally alkaline and has a color similar to soy sauce.

Depending on concentration, villagers would sometimes decide if an additional round of leaching is necessary.               

Epoch Times Photo
The ash-water produced is naturally alkaline and has a color similar to soy sauce.
(Benson Lau/The Epoch Times)

Absorbing the Essence

Soaking overnight in this ash-solution allows the glutinous rice to absorb its essence fully and turns golden.

Now the glutinous rice is ready for wrapping dumplings the next morning.

Epoch Times Photo
Soaking in ash-water overnight allows the glutinous rice to absorb its essence fully and ready for dumpling wrapping the following day. (Benson Lau/The Epoch Times)

Flat and Rectangular Shape

Rice soaked in lye are more puffy and harder to wrap into a pyramid shape. Kansui-zong parcels are therefore typically flat and rectangular.

Auntie Ying also gave us a tip that shorter bamboo leaves are generally more convenient for wrapping ash-water dumplings.

Epoch Times Photo
Auntie Ying from Yuen Kong, Kam Sheung Road, Yuen Long. (Benson Lau/The Epoch Times)

While lye dumpling don’t usually have fillings, a piece of sappanwood can be inserted which turns red once cooked, adding a touch of festivity and celebration. 

Epoch Times Photo
On June 23, 2023, a group of locals from Kam Sheung Road, Yuen Long gathered to make ash-water dumplings for the Dragon Boat Festival. (Benson Lau/The Epoch Times)

While the preparation work was lengthy and delicate, the wrapping process was completed with ease by the group, who finished a batch in chats and laughters.

Epoch Times PhotoLocal ladies making ash-water dumplings for the dragon boat festival. (Benson Lau/The Epoch Times)

The ladies also shared with us their all-time favorite, chilled lye dumplings served with cane sugar in summer.

The dumplings can be frozen in the fridge too, and still taste nice after a year! They told us.

Anyone can feel the joy from the infatuating smiles on the group members’ faces when they made the kansui-zong. The process represents not only a heritage but also unity and harmony when the villagers work together.

Epoch Times Photo
Flat ash-water dumpling. (Benson Lau/The Epoch Times)

Crackling Fire is The Best

When the wrapping is done, Auntie Ying took out a humongous iron wok and placed it on firewood. “Cooking with crackling fire from nature is traditionally the best for ash-water dumplings,” she said, “as it cooks more evenly, resulting in better texture.” 

Epoch Times Photo
Auntie Ying turns “Commander of Cookery” as she took out a giant iron wok to boil the ash-water dumplings. (Benson Lau/The Epoch Times)
Epoch Times Photo
Cooking with firewood adds layers of flavor to the ash-water rice dumplings. (Benson Lau/The Epoch Times)
Epoch Times Photo
It takes two to four hours to boil the dumplings, depending on individual preference of softness. (Benson Lau/The Epoch Times)

The Legacy Must Go On

Making ash-water dumplings or kansui-zong for Dragon Boat Festival is a big project that requires a lot time and patience. Ladies from the “Arts and Crafts Heritage” group gather once every two years to make the dumplings together. 

Epoch Times Photo
Auntie waits patiently for the dumplings to cook in the giant wok. (Benson Lau/The Epoch Times)
Epoch Times Photo
Making traditional all-natural ash-water dumpling is a big project. (Benson Lau/The Epoch Times)

Nowadays only a very few would dedicate so much time to make traditional all-natural kansui-zong, though the art allows one to experience the fantastic flavors Mother Nature has to offer. 

The ‘Arts and Crafts Heritage’ group certainly hope their efforts could help preserve the Hakka traditions, allowing it to continue and be passed on to future generations. 

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