When Dragon Boat Festival comes around, the food that (Chinese) people think of most is zongzi: sticky rice dumplings. It is an important part of the festival, just like turkey is at Christmas.
That's why the Dragon Boat Festival is sometimes called the Zongzi Festival or Rice Dumpling Festival.
On the day of the Dragon Boat Festival (Duanwu Jie — Start-of the-Fifth-Solar-Month Festival), which falls on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month in the Chinese calendar, zongzi or sticky rice dumplings are everywhere. People make zongzi and pass them out as gifts, or receive them, and eat them.
But why do people (in east Asia and its diaspora) eat zongzi at Dragon Boat Festival and how did the tradition originate? Continue to read to find out...
What Are Zongzi?
Zongzi (粽子/dzong-dz/) are “packets” of sticky rice with different fillings, wrapped in bamboo leaves or reed leaves. Zongzi appear in different shapes, according to different customs across China and in other countries. They are usually triangles (rounded semi-regular tetrahedrons or triangular-based pyramids) or rectangles (pillow shapes).
Zongzi differ in taste from one place to another across China. There are mainly two tastes to zongzi: sweet or savory. But nowadays, people even make zongzi with mixed sweet and savory fillings. See Regional Varieties of Zongzi below.
Why Do People Eat Zongzi at the Dragon Boat Festival?
Qu Yuan’s Story
The best known story in China to explain the legendary origin of eating zongzi at the Dragon Boat Festival is Qu Yuan’s story. Qu Yuan was a patriotic poet of the state of Chu during the Warring States Period (475–221 BC).
Qu Yuan was the number one advisor of the Kingdom of Chu, and dedicated his whole life to assisting the king to build the State of Chu stronger.
When he opposed the king’s plans to ally with the state of Qin, he was exiled. In his exiled days, he still cared much for his country and people and composed immortal poems including Li Sao (The Lament), which had far-reaching influences.
When the capital of Chu was conquered by the state of Qin, Qu Yuan committed suicide in the Miluo River on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month.
Qu’s body could not be found, so local people dropped jiaoshu (horn-shaped sticky rice dumplings) into the river. They hoped the fish would eat the rice rather than the poet’s body. From then on, zongzi (the popular version of jiaoshu) have become an integral part of the Dragon Boat Festival.
Is this the whole truth, though?...
More Zongzi History
Did you know that, in fact, zongzi existed long before Qu Yuan? It would be more accurate to say that Qu Yuan made zongzi more famous.
Five hundred thousand years ago, archaeological evidence suggests, the ancestors of Chinese people were already wrapping food in leaves and roasting it on a fire Zongzi probably came along after rice cultivation began (c. 8,000 years ago).
By the time of the Warring States Period (475–221 BC), zongzi had become a customary version of fast food, especially for farmers, who were too busy in the fields to head home for a meal.
So, zongzi is praised as “the world's first take-out food”.
It was not until Qu Yuan, though, that the dish became endowed with sacred meaning and lasting popularity as a festival food.
Regional Varieties of Zongzi
As mentioned above, there are mainly two tastes to zongzi: sweet or savory.
In northern China, people prefer their zongzi to be sweet. Zongzi might be filled with a few jujubes, a little red bean paste, or some other dried fruit. The southern style usually incorporates salty meat fillings, like pork or seafood. Some even dip their zongzi in sugar.
Here are several popular styles of zongzi:
Generally, Guangdong zongzi are large and have special shapes. They are either sweet with walnuts, dates, or bean paste as a filling, or savory with ham, egg, meat, or roast chicken as a filling.
Beijing zongzi, a representative type of zongzi in north China, are small and are in the shape of a triangle or rectangular. People are accustomed to making zongzi using jujube and sweet bean paste as fillings.
Shanghai-style zongzi are savory and a little bit salty. The filling consists of marinated pork belly (though chicken could be used), shiitake mushrooms, and salted duck egg, amidst other ingredients.
There’s another type of Shanghai-style zongzi that is sweet. Because no soy sauce is used, Shanghai zongzi are pearly white, but the stuffing of either mung beans or red bean paste gives them splashes of color. Sometimes they are even dipped in a plate of sugar before eating.
Taiwanese are accustomed to making their zongzi with different kinds of meat and seafood, and most of them have a salty and sweet taste.
How to Make a Zongzi
Here is a sample recipe for making a pork zongzi.
Ingredients: bamboo leaves and lengths of straw, streaky pork, glutinous rice, soy sauce, salt
- 1. Cut the streaky pork into zongzi-filling-sized pieces, add soy sauce and salt, and let it sit for one night to pickle the pork.
- 2. Wash the glutinous rice and flavor it with salt and soy sauce.
- 3. Wash and boil the bamboo leaves for a few minutes until soft.
- 4. Coil two or three bamboo leaves into the shape of a cone, then half fill it with glutinous rice, and add a piece of the streaky pork on top. Then, cover it with more sticky rice, wrap it into a pyramidal shape with the remaining length of the leaves, and bind it with a length of the soaked straw.
- 5. Put bamboo leaves in a pot, then place the wrapped zongzi on the leaves, and steam or boil for three to four hours.
- 6. Serve freshly cooked or cooled, or pack up as a take away food.
How to Eat Zongzi
- Sweet zongzi can be enjoyed at room temperature, but savory zongzi are really the best when they're steamy.
- To eat, simply cut the twine and unwrap the leaves to reveal the zongzi inside.
- To give the zongzi more flavors, savoury ones can be served with soy sauce while the sweet ones or lye water zongzi can be served with sugar or honey.
- Zongzi can be frozen after they cool to room temperature. To reheat, you can either steam or boil them.
- It is not recommended to eat sticky rice dumplings too much at a time and to eat two hours before going to bed. Zongzi has high viscosity, is difficult to digest.