Southern China’s favourite carbohydrate, rice, can be eaten both in the form of whole grains, or through endless preparations that start from rice flour (or in some rare cases, a kind of rice milk produced by grinding the grains and then adding just the right percentage of water). All the various kinds of rice noodles, for example, start from milling the rice, as do many desserts.
Without rice flour, many favourite dim sum dishes would not exist: take the deceptively simple cheung fun (coeng2 fan2 腸粉), a thin sheet of steamed rice flour, soft and smooth, that can be enjoyed with the addition of only some savoury sauces and a splash of peanut or sesame butter and a sprinkle of scallions. Cheung fun come in many different forms. Other than plain ones, classics include those stuffed with chicken and mushrooms, or wrapped around a crispy fried dough stick, or steamed shrimps or grilled pork placed into the sheet of rice while it is being cooked or once it has been removed from the pan.
In Hong Kong, the sheet of rice is wrapped three times, creating a sort of delicious envelope around its fillings. These days, as more and more restaurants are getting creative with their cheung fun, it is useful to think of it as a special type of wrapping, one which jiggles smoothly around any savoury deliciousness placed in its middle. Many wet markets have a dedicated stall that sells plain homemade cheung fun, which can then be reheated and dressed, or pan fried, at home.
But if you try to make cheung fun at home from scratch you will learn to really appreciate the different textures and combinations – and also make your own experiments with the fillings. Before you start, it seems like an impossible endeavour, but after one or two attempts your cheung fun sheet will take form. And that, truth be told, is a moment of pride.
Putting together everything that you will need, in terms of ingredients and of tools, and cleaning everything up after your snack will probably be the most time consuming moments in this endeavour. First of all is the flour. Rice flour comes in many different types, but labelling is inconsistent and a bit frustrating. “Japanese producers seem to be the most meticulous ones in labelling and specifying things. For the rest, it is very hard to find precise details about how the flour was produced,” says food writer Clarissa Wei, who has researched both Hong Kong and Taiwanese food.
The main difference is between indica and japonica, which used to indicate the provenance—although both types of rice are now planted in many areas—and also the grain size, the former being long and the latter short. If the rice is glutinous, its flour is most frequently used in sweet dishes, as it has a natural sweetness that suits desserts well, while non-glutinous rice flour is the one chosen for savoury dishes. In Hong Kong, the most commonly found brand of rice flour is a Thai one called Kangaroo. “This is from indica long grain rice, and Thai brands usually produce the flour with a water mill,” explains Wei. This means that instead of grinding the dry rice, water is added to create a much smoother, milk-like liquid, which is then dried out and turned into flour, creating an even and easily dissolved powder less prone to clumps.
Here is a simplified recipe that yields slightly thicker rice rolls than the extra-thin ones you would expect in a good dim sum restaurant, where they are made with a large cheesecloth-like textile on which the batter is poured that is then lifted up onto the plate. That is a more complicated technique since it is harder to spread the batter evenly, and, once it is cooked, to separate the rice sheet from the cloth without breaking it.
Recipe: Cheung fun
This easier batter has a 1:2 ratio (in cups) of dry ingredients to water.
- 1 cup or 138 grams rice flour
- ½ cup or 90 grams potato starch (also called potato flour)
- ¼ cup or 40 grams cornstarch
- ¼ cup or 40 grams tapioca starch
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 4 cups water, or about 900 grams, at room temperature or slightly warmer
1 tablespoon plus one small bowl with a little neutral oil (the tablespoon goes into your batter, while the oil in the small bowl will be used for brushing the steaming tray and the plate you will use to roll the cheung fun)
To make rice rolls successfully, you will need to prep your working space in advance, and make sure that you have all the necessary equipment. You will need:
- A wok
- A steaming tray and lid
- Two non-stick, square, metal cake pan that fit into the steaming tray
- A very large bowl filled with cold water, large enough to fit the steaming tray so that it can cool in the water
- A whisk with rigid spikes
- A brush for food
- A ladle
- A spatula, or two: ideally, a soft and a rigid one
- A large flat serving plate to place your rice rolls, for rolling them
- Pot holders so you don’t burn your fingertips when you lift the cake pan
Put your wok on the flame, and pour in the water for steaming. Slightly oil your cake pans, using the brush. Cover with your steaming tray, place one of the oiled cake pans on top of the tray, close with the lid, and bring the water to a boil.
Meanwhile, measure all the dry ingredients (the four flours and the salt) into a large mixing bowl, and slowly pour the first cup of water while mixing with the whisk, making sure to incorporate all the dry ingredients evenly.
Continue pouring the water, adding it very slowly as this will prevent lumps, and keep on whisking. Add the oil, and give a final whisk. The batter will be very liquid and creamy, a bit like thick milk.
Now lift the lid from the wok, and check that it is steaming. Add a ladleful of batter to the tray (as little as you can manage while keeping the whole surface of the pan covered with the batter) and move the batter around with the spatula to help it cover the bottom of the pan. Put the lid back on, and cook for two to three minutes.
When you lift the lid, you should see the surface of the rice sheet bubbling up a little, which is the sign you are on the right track.
Using your pot holders, lift off the pan, and put it in the bowl with the cold water. Meanwhile, place the second pan in the steaming basket, and ladle in the batter to repeat the process for a second roll.
Once the first roll sheet has cooled off a little, take it off the water, and use the spatula to go around its edges and lift them slightly from the pan. Using your fingers, lift one edge of the rice sheet, and pull it off the pan. Lay it on the plate, and roll it. There, you made your first cheung fun! Enjoy it by simply seasoning it with soy sauce, chilli oil and chopped spring onion, with the optional addition of hoisin sauce, sesame seeds and very smooth sesame paste or tahini.