Zong Zi: The Traditional Food of Dragon Boat Festival and What I Learnt While Making Them
Dragon Boat Festival is one of the major holidays in China. Project Pengyou intern, Sophie Cheung, recaps the history behind the holiday’s iconic food, zong zi (粽子), and shares her experience of making the sticky rice dumplings.
History of the Festival
Along with the iconic Chinese New Year, Dragon Boat Festival, also known as duan wu jie (端午节), is one of the lesser-known but similarly important holidays in China.
Dragon Boat Festival honors the great poet Qu Yuan, one of the fathers of Chinese poetry. Qu Yuan served as an advisor to the state of Chu towards the end of the Warring States Period and is commemorated by Chinese people each year due to this patriotism and love for country, despite his exile by the state.
The festival occurs each year on the fifth day of the fifth lunar calendar month. This year’s festivities took place last Monday, the 15th of June, with most people celebrating by eating zong zi (粽子), a special type of glutinous rice dumpling with sweet or savory filling, wrapped up in bamboo leaves.
Zong Zi (粽子)
Chinese people and others around the world eat zong zi to commemorate Qu Yuan and the loyalty he displayed to his community. Legend has it that fishermen threw zong zi in the river to keep the fish away from Qu Yuan’s body when he drowned himself upon hearing that the Chu state had been defeated by the Qin. Nowadays, Chinese people eat many regional varieties of zong zi in honor of the patriotic poet.
Zong zi is now enjoyed by many but made by few. Unlike dumplings, which are often home-made during holiday occasions or just on a regular weekday, zongzi is usually enjoyed in the store-bought or restaurant-made form.
This year, I try my hand at making a nation-wide popular zong zi which is of a sweet and triangular-shaped variety with red bean paste filling. As a newbie/xin shou (新手) to zong zi making, I call upon the help of a youtuber and my mother (as well as an emergency call to my grandmother – the real zong zi expert).
Things I Learned While Making Zong Zi (粽子)
1. Buy pre-prepared bamboo leaves.
This will allow you to save quite some time. Bamboo leaf for zong zi can usually be purchased in two forms: dry or pre-prepared. Pre-prepared is always better as it means you can go on and wrap your leaf with the filling directly – no cleaning, soaking or boiling necessary. The pre-prepared variety tends to look much more green in color than the dried variety, as you can see below.
2. If you do have to use dry bamboo leaves, prepare them the evening before.
Sometimes, pre-prepared bamboo leaves aren’t available. As you have to clean and soak (perhaps also boil, although this is optional) dry leaves, it is best to do this the evening before to save time and minimize hassle.
3. Wrap and secure the zong zi with string as tightly as possible.
By tight, I mean very, very tight. This is essential to make sure you don’t end up with a pot of sticky rice and red bean paste instead of neat little zong zi pockets. Make sure you wrap and pull the cotton string around the zong zi at least three times, with all your might. Finish off by securing a knot.
4. Simmer the zong zi very, very gently.
To prevent the zong zi from flipping and tumbling around in the pot during the cooking process, keep the fire on a low setting. You want the water to be very gently simmering for a period of roughly 3 hours.
5. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and have fun!
Internet resources and recipes are great, but sometimes all you need is some old-fashioned help. I found that making zong zi is relatively straightforward except for the wrapping part, which was where I really needed the helping hands of my mother (along with a brief telephone consultation with my grandmother). Even if your friends/relatives don’t have much zong zi expertise, it is certainly still a fun and hands-on activity to enjoy together – which at the end of the day, is really what holiday cooking in all cultures is about.
Have you ever eaten or made zong zi before? Is this your first time hearing of zong zi? We’ve love to hear your experiences. Comment down below!