Lo Mai Gai (Steamed glutinous rice and chicken in lotus leaves)

Lo Mai Gai

I’ve always loved glutinous rice. OK, I’m Chinese so I love rice anyway but glutinous rice, or rather sticky rice to make it sound just a bit nicer, has always had a special place in my heart ever since I was a child. I’m not sure if it’s the stickiness of the rice which makes it just a bit more comforting than normal rice that makes me like it so much, perhaps it’s the fact that we only really ate it on special occasions so in my mind it equates to something special, or perhaps it’s because in the Chinese dialect we speak, the phrase “to eat sticky rice” sounds a bit like being called stupid and thus is the source of much hilarity (well, it was when I was younger anyway). Whatever the reason, I still look forward to eating steamed sticky rice as much now as an adult as I did when I was a child – And I daresay my sisters will agree with me on that statement. I remember my parents cooking sticky rice with various chinese dried meats and seafoods, it was so delicious that we felt like we could eat several bowls (even as children) and whilst it would highlight the fantastic quality of dried meats and seafood (that was sent over from Hong Kong by various relatives or as a result of trips back), it was always the sticky rice – Especially the crusty parts that stuck to the bottom of the pan a bit too much that we’d (as children) always fight over.

My mother also used to make jyoong, which is essentially sticky rice with different fillings which are then wrapped and tied up in bamboo leaves. However, there would be a massive undertaking as not only would you have to prepare the fillings individually (and they could be savoury or sweet), but the actual assembly was quite hard (and one I’ve still not been able to master), then there was the little task of having to boil the bamboo leave parcels for a few hours until they were soft. Needless to say that the whole operation took a while and I genuinely don’t have that amount of time to dedicate to it. I keep (half) joking and say that I need to take at least a whole weekend off to do it, but one of these days, I’m gonna do it – And you can guarantee that I’ll be posting about it if/when that ever happens.

A distant relative of the jyoong is “lo mai gai” which is essentially sticky rice (the lo mai part), with a filling of mainly chicken (gai) which is then wrapped in a lotus leaf and steamed. It’s primarily a dim sum item that’s commonly ordered when we go yum cha, but I have a vivid memory of watching a HK drama serial when I was younger and to save time, the main character (a single dad) bought his young son a freshly steamed lo mai gai to eat as breakfast on the go on the way to taking him to school. I remember salivating at it thinking how delicious it must have tasted – Fresh sticky rice first thing in the morning! Oh how I wished I was that kid…

So I’d been wanting to make Lo Mai Gai for a while but never really got the time or the energy to do so – I generally had most of the ingredients but never all of them. Well, it obviously annoyed me enough one day because I headed out to buy all the missing ingredients and resolved to make lo mai gai:

Firstly, you need to soak the sticky rice – preferably overnight but I soaked it for at least 4 hours (which actually gave me time to head out and buy the ingredients I was missing). Whilst we’re soaking items, you may as well soak some dried shiitake mushrooms too as they can take some time to re-hydrate. Once the rice has been soaked long enough, line the bottom of a steam basket with some parchment paper, drain then add the sticky rice to steam. The idea is that the parchment will stop any wayward grains of rice falling through as it steams but what I found was that the rice at the bottom of the pile steamed before the rice at the top did. Of course, I realise that it could be I was too impatient and should have left it alone instead of trying to move the grains at the top to the bottom, but the result for me was that some grains weren’t as cooked as they should have been. The (mostly) cooked rice was then seasoned with some light soy sauce, sesame oil, a touch of salt and some extra water. It was then put aside to cool down slightly so that I didn’t burn my hands when assembling later.

Glutinous rice

Whilst the rice was steaming, I set about marinating the chicken for the filling; some chicken thighs were roughly chopped, I left the bone in but you could leave out if it doesn’t take your fancy. I chopped the chicken into fairly hefty chunks because I believe that since the chicken is one of the primary ingredients, it should be fairly prominent, unlike what you can get in restaurants where it’s more minced pork with a small piece of chicken. Marinade the chicken with some finely shredded ginger (I like the ginger tang but you could easily grate it finely should you wish to), light soy sauce, sesame oil, white pepper and cornflour. In the 20 or so minutes it takes to marinade, the rice should be cooked through.

Chicken Marinating

With the chicken marinating and the steamed rice cooling, drain the shiitake mushrooms (which should be fully reconstituted now) and remove the central stalk which no matter how long you soak for, will never will soft enough to eat. I’ve seen some recipes which suggest that you coat the mushrooms in oil and stream them for about 10mins to soften them a bit more, but I personally didn’t bother. The other ingredient for the filling is some lap cheung which is a Chinese dried sausage and easily available from Chinese supermarkets. I briefly soaked them in warm water to soften slightly before slicing diagonally. As these were pretty good quality lap cheung, I sliced them quite thinly otherwise the flavour from them would be overpowering, but if you were to buy them from a Chinese supermarket, I would hazard a guess that they won’t be quite as good as the ones I used so you could cut them up into thicker slices. With all the key components of the filling ready, time to cook the filling;

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Heat up some oil in a wok and add some chopped garlic, move it around the oil quickly and add the chicken, brown it on all sides before adding the lap cheung and shiitake mushrooms. Mix everything together before seasoning with some shoaxing rice wine and a touch of oyster sauce, add some water and cover to cook the chicken through. There’s no need to thicken the sauce as there’s already cornflour in the chicken marinade which will thicken the sauce. Once the chicken is cooked, set aside to cool slightly whilst you get on with the last task before assembling – The lotus leaves.

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Lotus leaves are weird, you can buy them from Chinese supermarkets and I knew they were big, but nothing prepared me for the fact that I could only buy them in 1Kg packs and that there is no bag big enough to hold them properly, well without running the risk of damaging them by folding. Plus, it’s also a bad idea to get them if you don’t drive so have to get public transport and on top of that, I especially wouldn’t recommend you buy them when doing a bit of a food shop around the markets which result in several shopping bags. Of course, if you have a car and someone to help carry bags for you, ignore what I just said. On the plus side, I know I won’t be needing lotus leaves again in a hurry! Anyway, I digress.. So yes, lotus leaves. Bring a large pot or wok of water to the boil and carefully remove the dried lotus leaves from the packet. Don’t worry if your pan doesn’t look big enough for the leaves – the trick is to gently drop at least one part of the dried leaf into the water and as it reconstitutes, it will become more malleable so you will be able to drop more of the leaf into the water until eventually the whole thing is submerged into the water. Needless to say, you need to take great care when manoeuvering the leaf into the water so that you don’t break the (still dried) part of the leaf. Once the whole leave is submerged, you need to boil them. After 10mins drain, clean the leaves slightly and you should find that the leaves are supple enough for use. Cut out the central core of the leaves and split each leaf in half (at which point it dawned on me that for all my worrying that the dried leaf was too big for the pot I was using to boil them in, I was only looking at half the leaf..). Anyway, the half leaf should resemble a fan shape. Finally – FINALLY – You’re now ready to start assembling;

Lotus leaf Lotus leaf Lotus leaf Lotus leaf

Lay one of the (half) lotus leaves out on a surface – Shiny side up so that the veins will be on the outside of the parcel and flatten out some of the sticky rice to act as a base. How much you put depends entirely on how big you want to make them. Add some of the cooked filling – making sure to get a bit of everything (chicken, lap cheung and shiitake mushroom), then top the whole thing with a bit more sticky rice so that the filling is sandwiched between 2 layers of sticky rice. Square it off a little to neaten the edges then wrap the lotus leaf around the rice and filling mixture to form a parcel. Hopefully, the edge of the folds should be on the bottom so that the weight of the parcel keeps it enclosed as you steam it for the final time. I got the ratio of filling:rice a bit wrong so in some of mines, there was more rice than filling and in others, it was mainly filling but then again, my parcels were rather large and enough for 2 people to share or in the case of my family, enough for 1 hungry person. Given they were a bit bigger, I steamed them (fold side down) a bit longer to make sure that they were completely cooked through, but since the filling is cooked before you finally steam it, it probably only needs about 30mins or so. The main point of the final stream is for the lotus leaf to impart its wonderful flavour and aroma to the finished dish so you only really need to steam your wrapped parcels until they’re soft to touch.

Assembling Assembling Assembling Ready to steam

Once they were done, the smell wafting out of the steamer when I lifted the lid was sensational. It’s such a distinct, unmistakable – and very enticing smell.  For a fleeting moment, I didn’t care how they tasted as they certainly smelled the part, but of course that never really lasted very long with me – I couldn’t wait to open one of the parcels up and taste the riches inside!

Steaming

And how were they? They were pretty good.. I gave the Mothership the first taste and her response was: “Oh, it tastes pretty good!”. I don’t know if I should have been shocked/offended/happy at her response 😉

Well, the rice wasn’t *quite* a soft as it could have been – Certainly I should have steamed the rice initially for a little longer, but I probably should have added a bit more water to the cooked rice too when seasoning just to let it fluff up a bit more during the final steam. I probably should have chopped the chicken into smaller pieces too but the flavourings were spot on, I think. My sister H also commented that a bit of pork belly was also needed (but I think you stray into jyoong territory there), but she also offered that the sauce needs to be extra EXTRA thick – almost gloopy so that the sauce will dissolve into the rice a bit more during the final steam. But I didn’t think it was too bad – A nice bit of tender filling (be it chicken, shiitake mushroom or a umami hit from the lap cheung) with the soft sticky rice all imparted with the aroma from the lotus leaf.. It was a bit of an effort but absolutely worth it and something I’ll be making again. In fact, I may not even order it when out yum cha again – *THAT’S* how much I liked it.

Lo Mai Gai

You can view the full set of photos on my Flickr page.

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