Dragon Boats, Dumplings and a Patriotic Poet

Zongzi are a traditional food during the Dragon Boat Festival, which is celebrated on the 5th day of the 5th month of the lunar calendar. This year it happens June 25th 2020.

The story behind these dumplings started over a thousand years ago during the Warring States period, when there were seven kingdoms in China who were constantly battling for dominance. In the kingdom of Chu there lived a poet and scholar named Qu Yan, who was devoted to his state and wrote about it often.

However, in 278 BC Chu was overthrown by the neighboring Qin kingdom. Qu Yan was despondent and wrote a poem expressing his sadness and concern for the people of Chu. He threw himself into the Miluo River, unable to face the loss of his beloved state.

Learning this, the people of Chu quickly paddled their boats, racing towards Qu Yan, but it was too late. In a last attempt to preserve the poet, they threw rice dumplings into the water to prevent fish and evil spirits from taking his body.

Every year on the anniversary of his death, people eat zongzi dumplings and race dragon boats to celebrate his life and dedication to his kingdom.

If you would like to try making zongzi, here is our Lau family recipe. We are from the southern part of China, where zongzi are a sort of tetrahedral shape and usually have savory fillings. In the north, you may see cylindrical zongzi with sweet fillings.

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Ingrediants Table

Zongzi recipe

  • 1 pkg. (12-15 oz.) Dried bamboo leaves (washed and boiled for 5 minutes to soften)
  • 1 ball Unbleached cotton string
  • 5 lbs. Glutinous rice (washed and soaked in water for 30 minutes)
  • 8 oz. Dried, hulled mung beans (washed and soaked in water for 1 hour)
  • 2 lbs. Pork belly (cut into 1-in. chunks and marinated overnight)
  • 4-6 oz. Nuts and herbs (chestnut, lotus seed, walnut, go qi zi, etc.)
  • 6 whole Salted duck eggs (shells removed, rinsed, sliced lengthwise into quarters)

Pork belly marinade

  • 5 tbsp. Soy sauce
  • 3 tbsp. Sugar
  • 1 tbsp. Five-spice powder
  • 3 tbsp. Shaoxing Rice Wine

Everything except the first three ingredients are optional, and vegetarian combinations are common. The fillings used for Zongzi vary from region to region and individual family tradition, but the rice used is always glutinous rice (also called "sticky rice" or "sweet rice"). Fillings used include:

  • Mung beans (hulled)
  • Aduki beans (whole or sweetened paste)
  • Chinese sausage
  • Red-cooked pork
  • Char siu (Chinese barbecued pork)
  • Salted pork fat
  • Salted duck eggs
  • Chicken
  • Conpoy (dried scallops)
  • Shiitake mushrooms
  • Chestnuts
  • Jujubes
  • Taro
  • Cooked peanuts

Making Zongzi is traditionally a family event in which everyone helps. Makes about 2 dozen.

  1. Gently crimp the center of a bamboo leaf to create a small fold (be careful not to rip the leaf)
  2. Twist the leaf with the crimp as the center point to form a cup shape. Hold the cupped section in your hand to hold the shape.
  3. Line the cup with a layer of sticky rice, then a small handful of mung beans. Add 1 piece each of the other ingredients, then cover the top with another layer of sticky rice. Try not to overstuff.
  4. Take another bamboo leaf, and wrap it around the side of the cup with the ends going in the same direction as the ends of the cup.
  5. Fold the sides of the second leaf over the cup to cover the top.
  6. Wrap the ends of the leaves around bottom and up around the cup to form a three-sided pyramid shape.
  7. Wrap a length of unbleached cotton string around the dumpling and tie tightly.
  8. Place the dumplings in a large pot of cold water and bring to a boil.
  9. Allow the dumplings to boil on medium heat for about 4 hours to cook through.
  10. To serve, unwrap dumplings, sprinkle with soy sauce or white sugar (we prefer sugar) and Enjoy!

To store dumplings, keep wrappings intact, but allow them to cool completely before refrigerating or freezing. To reheat defrosted dumplings, boil or steam them again for about 30 minutes. Microwaving is not recommended as the dumplings will heat unevenly and be rather hard and dry.

Some folks enjoy them with soy sauce, but our family loves dipping in sugar for salty/sweet yumminess!

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