This Thursday, May 28 is the fifth day of the fifth moon according the Lunar Calendar. On that day, a good billion plus people around the world will be celebrating Duānwǔ Jié (端午節), a Chinese holiday that’s also known as the Double Fifth Festival in China and the Dragon Boat Festival in the West. What’s the deal with dragon boats? The story is that the holiday commemorates the drowning suicide death of Qu Yuan, a poet, scholar, and minister to the King of Chu in 278 BCE. A man willing to sacrifice his own life for the sake of his moral convictions, Qu was banished for treason when the king allied with a rival warlord. When the rival warlord over took the Chu state, Qu threw himself into the Miluo River in Hunan province.
The local people admired Qu so much that they attempted to preserve his body by throwing food into the river to distract the fish from eating his corpse. This is how the practice of making zòngzi , a.k.a. Chinese tamales, began. You have to paddle dragon boats out into the river and then throw the bamboo-leaf wrapped dumplings into the water. Pyramid-like zòngzi, made primarily of sticky rice and either a sweet or savory filling, becomes very heavy and hearty after its hours boiling so they’re bound to keep the fish busy for a while.
Stalwart Chinese cooks annually make a ritual of preparing and sharing zòngzi with family and friends. This last weekend, I was privileged to participate in a zòngzi wrapping session with the Pan family in San Francisco. Fanny Pan, a budding food stylist, invited me, my husband and friend Karen Shinto to attend and learn how to wrap zòngzi from her mother, who has been annually making 100 dumplings for years. With so many of the hearty dumplings around, Fanny grew up not wanting to eat or make zòngzi. This year, however, she had Karen and me, along with her parents, to goad her to master the ancient Chinese tradition.
By the time we arrived, Mrs. Pan had wrapped a good 60 zòngzi. She had carefully organized all the prepped ingredients on her tidy dining table. The long-grain sticky rice had been soaked and mixed with oil, salt, and ‘chicken essence.’ Thumbsize-pieces pork belly was marinated in Chinese 5-spice powder and salt. There were salted chicken egg yolks that she’d brined 28 days earlier. And yellow-split mung beans had been soaked and drained. (The filling varies according to cook, and this was Mr. and Mrs. Pan’s favorite filling.) All we had to do was wrap. Mr. and Mrs. Pan boiled the assembled zòngzi for 4 hours. Zòngzi tips I learned from Mrs. Pan included:
How to form the bamboo leaf cone for zòngzi:
Three (3) soaked and boiled bamboo leaves are needed for each zòngzi. Do not use ones with holes! Hold two leaves with their flat sides facing upward (the spines facing downward) with enough overlap so that there is 1-inch protruding on the furthermost edge. Then fold in the middle to the spine, and then bring up the lower edge to form a cone.
Now take a new leaf and position it with the stem end facing the opposite direction (smoother side facing upward). Put your index and middle finger atop the leaf at the midpoint and then use those fingers to push the leaf into the assembled cone. Now you have architecturally built up the cone so that it is taller. Makes sure that the third leaf covers any gaps between the two initial leaves.
How to fill and wrap zòngzi:
First some rice, shaped into a trough. Then pieces of pork and egg. Next some mung bean and finally some more rice to cover. Tap it down well, then close up the bottom and two sides. Finally the top comes down and you finish by wrapping it all in lots of twine. For greater detail and some laughs, watch this video on how to fill and wrap the dumpling:
What do you do with zòngzi dumplings?
The Pan family will exchange them with their clan and friends, comparing their versions with others to see who made the best. “Can you differentiate the filling?” Mr. Pan asked. “That is the mark of a good zòngzi!” Below are the Pan family's dumplings:
There will be incense lit at the altar and prayers said. Though we got to eat zòngzi fresh from the 20-quart pots of boiling water, the Pans sent us home with a few so that we could savor them the next day, when they’ve aged a bit and taste better. Yesterday, my husband warmed one in the microwave oven and we tore into it for lunch. I like to sprinkle a little sugar on mine, a practice related to Vietnamese sticky rice cakes called banh trung. It was marvelous on its own and in my opinion a nice savory sweet contrast with the sugar. Now that I know how to wrap them, I’m ready to make my own in 2010!
Download pronunciations for:
- Though we know of Duānwǔ Jié in English as the Dragon Boat Festival, its literal translation is “Solar Maximus Festival,” which you could interpret as the spring solstice celebration.
- You can buy zòngzi at Chinese supermarkets in the refrigerated section.
- Nonya Zong, made on the Malay peninsula by Peranakan cooks, are wrapped in pandan leaves.
- In China, an aloe-like leaf, is used to wrap huge forearm-size zòngzi.
- Though Duānwǔ Jié is an ancient holiday, after 1949 when the communists took over China, it was no longer observed as a public holiday. In 2005, the government decided to relax and allow for 3 public holiday celebrations. Last year, 2008, was the first time that Duānwǔ Jié was officially celebrated as a public holiday in the People’s Republic of China.
- Variants of Duānwǔ Jié festival are celebrated in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, where the holiday is called Kodomo no hi, Dano, and Tết Đoan Ngọ, respectively.
- This year, 2009, Starbucks is selling a frappucino-flavored zòngzi in China!
- In China, zòngzi can be wrapped in leaves similar to aloe, with their thorns having been removed. You can see zòngzi being wrapped in traditional leaves in a January 2008 episode of Gourmet magazine's Diary of a Foodie.
If you have stories or zòngzi recipes to share, do provide them below!