Zongzi's Complicated Relationship With the Dragon Boat Festival
Plus My Grandmother's Own Recipe!
With most Dragon Boat Festivals around the world being canceled for the second year a row, many are turning to other ways to celebrate the annual holiday that commemorates the life and death of Qu Yuan, an ancient Chinese poet.
Chief among these is eating zongzi, or simply zong, the traditional food of the Dragon Boat Festival. Zongzi are sticky rice dumplings wrapped in thick leaves that serve to hold the parcel together and impart complex, earthy aromas. They’re a delicious treat, though heavily seasonal and somewhat difficult to find in restaurants outside of late spring and early summer.
It is widely believed that the bamboo-wrapped rice dish first appeared in the Spring and Autumn Period of Chinese history (approximately 771 - 476 B.C.); however, there is evidence that they existed as early as 5,000 years ago as a portable, filling dish for farmers in the countryside.
Dense and flavorful, these bulging packets of sticky rice are prepared slightly differently depending on several regional cooking methods. There are seemingly endless variations of zongzi throughout China and the rest of Asia, though the majority of these can be broken into two archetypes: sweet and savory.
More specifically, zongzi from Northern China is primarily a dessert, wrapped in a tetrahedral shape and filled with sugary jujubes, preserved fruits, red bean paste, or peanuts. In contrast, zongzi from Southern China is savory, wrapped in a conical shape and filled with pork or chicken, Chinese sausage, dried scallops, and peanuts. Some major cities and provinces also have their own take on zongzi. Beijing’s version is small and rectangular with bean paste and jujubes while Fujian province is known for two varieties of the dish: roast pork zongzi and soda zongzi, which is soaked in alkaline water and served with honey, sugar, or syrup.
Despite its modern associations with the Dragon Boat festival, the legend behind zongzi's origins is rather macabre.
Born in 339 B.C. during China’s Warring States period, the Chinese poet and statesman Qu Yuan was a respected member of the house of Chu, a state in the Central Yangtze valley. A proponent of resistance to Qin, one of the most powerful Chinese kingdoms of that time, Qu Yuan was eventually banished from the throne due to his polarizing political views. After a period of despair, during which he wrote poetry while wandering Southern Chu, Qu Yuan drowned himself in the Yangtze River. The Dragon Boat Festival began as the search for his corpse, and when nearby villagers did eventually stumble upon the dead poet, they threw rice wrapped in bamboo leaves into the water in order to deter fish from feasting on his remains.
Those rice parcels would eventually be known as zongzi — and would grow to become a treasured dish throughout all of China.
To me, the meaty aromas emanating from a freshly steamed zongzi, or joong, as my family calls them, are reminiscent of my childhood, when my grandmother would spend days making dozens of these glutinous rice treats and distributing them to all of my relatives. I don’t ever recall buying one from a restaurant around the time of the Dragon Boat Festival; there was always someone in the family cooking up joong, and it wasn’t uncommon for us to keep them in the freezer for weeks or even months at a time before eating.
I’ve included below my grandmother’s recipe for Toisanese-style joong, wrapped in bamboo leaves and filled with preserved duck egg, Chinese sausage, and pork belly. It’s definitely an old school recipe, and using the most traditional cooking methods, making it is a days-long process — but it’s also a labor of love that produces an incomparably delicious morsel. Feel free to adjust the recipe however you want, as there's no one way to correctly prepare joong! Pork belly could easily be substituted with chicken, and shrimp is often replaced by dried scallops.
Soaking time: 48 hours
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 6 hours
Total time: 54.5 hours
1 (12-ounce) package dried bamboo leaves
1/2 pound raw pork belly, sliced
2 pounds short grain sweet rice
1 (14-ounce) package dried split mung beans
1 (14-ounce) package raw shelled peanuts
5 salted preserved duck egg yolks
3 links Chinese sausage
3 oz. package dried baby shrimp
Note: Each joong requires three bamboo leaves, so make sure you have plenty on hand!
Preparing the leaves:
1. Let bamboo leaves soak in water overnight
2.Clean each leaf individually on both sides after soaking
3. Add two tbps salt into boiling water
4. Boil leaves for ten minutes
5. Let sit in salt water mixture overnight
6. Clean each leaf individually on both sides after soaking
Cooking and assembling the joong:
1. Wash rice until water runs clear
2. Add 3/4 tsp salt and let sit for 2 hours
3. Wash mung beans and stir fry in oil
4. Take two bamboo leaves, with stems pointed opposite directions, leaving about an inch between the two before folding them in half first horizontally, then vertically; should form a cone-like leaf base that will be the vessel for the zongzi ingredients
5. Add three tablespoons of rice to leaf base
6. Add one slice of roast pork belly, one third of Chinese sausage, three dried shrimp, one half preserved egg yolk, three peanuts, and one tablespoon of mung beans
7. Fold and wrap in baker’s twine (see folding instructions)
8. Repeat steps 4-7 as many times as desired
9. Add joong to pot of boiling water for four hours, checking periodically to make sure that joong stays submerged
10. Take joong out and place into another pot, insuring that water is still boiling so that the rice does not soak up the liquid
11. Rinse in warm water and enjoy!
1. Take one more bamboo leaf and wrap it around the short side of the cone
2. Fold the two sides of the additional leaf on top of each other, creating a seal over the rice
3. Fold the leaves at the top of the cone downwards, covering the top of the joong
4. Lay baker's twine vertically along length joong
5. Snuggly wrap twine horizontally around the sides of the joong
6. Secure with double-knot
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