Zongzi and the Dragon Boat Festival
Around the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar, you will find bundles of sticky rice dumplings sold at wet markets or food stalls in Hong Kong and other Chinese cities in preparation for the Dragon Boat Festival (also called Tuen Ng Festival in Hong Kong). These leaf-wrapped delicacies have many names—they are called zongzi in Mandarin, and joong in Cantonese. They are also sometimes called dragon boat dumplings or glutinous rice dumplings.
These delicacies come from a rather grim Chinese legend. The Dragon Boat Festival commemorates the death of a Chinese poet and patriot called Qu Yuan, who threw himself into a river after being accused of treason. Local villagers immediately rushed out to the river in their boats. They beat their drums and splashed water to keep the evil spirits from his body. They also threw rice dumplings into the river to keep the fish from eating his body. This then become the tradition of racing dragon boats and eating rice dumplings during the festival.
What Are Zongzi?
In short, zongzi are a little package wrapped in bamboo leaves and stuffed with glutinous rice and different exciting ingredients. There are many regional variations of rice dumplings, but the two main kinds of zongzi are: savoury ones and sweet ones. Savoury rice dumplings normally contain ingredients such as salted egg yolks, mung beans, and seasoned pork. To me, a good, oily salted duck egg yolk is the key to a good savoury rice dumpling. Sweet rice dumplings are usually stuffed with glutinous rice mixed with beans and/or a bean paste.
Among the sweet rice dumplings, the lye water zongzi deserves a special mention here because of its distinctive colour and taste. It is made with glutinous rice that has been blended with alkaline water. The alkaline water (called kansui in Cantonese) turns the colour of the rice into a light, transparent yellow. Lye water zongzi are usually stuffed with a sweet bean paste which balances its distinctive flavour.
Tips for Eating Zongzi
- Rice dumplings sold at the markets or supermarkets are usually cooked already, so they only need to be reheated. You can either steam or boil them. Though steaming takes longer, it is the recommended method of reheating as it retains the most flavours.
- To devour a sticky rice dumpling, you need a plate, a pair of scissors, and a pair of chopsticks. Use the scissors to cut the twine so you can unwrap the leaves and reveal the steamy zongzi inside. Then you can cut up the zongzi using the scissors or chopsticks, depending on the level of your chopstick skills.
- To enjoy savoury rice dumplings at their best, you should eat them when they are steamy hot. Sweet rice dumplings on the other hand can be enjoyed when steamy or at room temperature.
- To give the zongzi more flavours, savoury ones are usually served with soy sauce while the sweet ones are served with crystal sugar. Lye water zongzi are best served with honey.
- Rice dumplings are very filling. So it is best to wash them down with a hot cup of Chinese tea.
- Don’t eat zongzi too close to bedtime or you’ll give yourself indigestion.
Did You Know?
- A sticky rice dumpling maker at a local market it Hong Kong once told me that rice dumplings should not be stored in a sealed container because they need fresh air to “breathe” in order to maintain their flavours. That’s why you see all the dumplings sold dangling by their strings at local markets.
- If you want to give homemade rice dumplings a go, there are many great recipes out there. This Cantonese Sticky Rice Dumplings recipe comes with clear instructions, photo illustrations, and even a tutorial video.
Wrapping the rice dumpling is the crucial part of the production – if it’s too loose, the ingredients will fall out. This video shows you how a zongzi is traditionally prepared.
Have you ever eaten zongzi? Do you prefer the sweet or savoury ones? Learn how to eat even more of the best food from around the world right here.