There are three things you must eat today: a hard-boiled salted duck egg, a Zongzi, and mung bean cakes. Why? Because today is the Chinese Dragon Boat Day, and a quarter of the world’s population will be celebrating this holiday by racing dragon boats and making Zongzi— a glutinous rice and pork cake wrapped in bamboo leaves—at home.
Take a stroll down to the waterfront today. You will see teams of people racing banana-shaped boats decorated with intricate carvings and brightly colored dragon heads and tails. A drummer sits next to the head, beating his drums intensely to excited the rowers. The air is filled with shouting and cheering. It is a serious race, but silly and festive at the same time.
Rumor has it that the origin of this “competition” started with a reputable Chinese man, Qu Yuan, who threw himself into the Miluo River 3000 years ago. He loved his country deeply, but was upset with the bureaucracy and the hopelessness of the government. So he decided to committee suicide—an act he hoped would wake up his neighbors to fight for their rights.
When Qu Yuan’s friends, family and neighbors learned about his death, they ran to the riverbank. They cried and cried and cried.
(Disclaimer: the following dialogue is based on brief historical text, embellished with Shanshan’s imagination)
“We need to find his body!” One person abruptly interrupted the grief.
“What if fish start to eat his body?” Someone else asked.
Everybody was appalled.
A woman jumped up, “we can feed the fish with rice!”
Everybody was relieved.
“But rice floats, it won’t sink!” Someone played the devil’s advocate, and offered a solution. “We need to wrap them up, and make it heavy!”
Then another voice added, “let’s make it flavorful, too! Fish would like that!”
Then the neighbours ran back to their homes, mixed rice with flavorful ingredients, wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves and tied with white cotton string, and returned to the riverbank.
“How can we send them to the fish?” One asked.
One answered, “let’s boat to where he jumped, and dump the rice wraps.”
So that’s what they did.
And this is how we invented the dragon boat race and Zongzi.
Just Kidding! Now let’s be serious.
If the above were true, the Dragon Boat Day would be way more interesting. But the truth is, nobody really knows when and why Zongzi was created. Early records show that Zongzi was first discovered in a tomb from the Song Dynasty, 1,000 years after Qu Yuan’s time. It is one of many foods that can be found throughout China in varying forms, despite the fact that communication and written recipes was virtually impossible between regions.
Making Zongzi is complicated – it’s a process that I have far from perfected single-handedly. So, when my mother came to visit me in the U.S. for Thanksgiving, I asked her (sweetly) to make me a dozen.
Now, before you decide that Zongzi is amazing but too complicated to make at home, let me reassure you: Zongzi is very similar to another food you might be familiar with: tamales.
There are three ways to try Zongzi in the U.S.:
Buy it on Amazon, or,
Buy it at your local Asian grocery store, or,
Thanks to my mother, who shows us the secret to making perfect Zongzi, you can try making this Chinese delicacy at home!