Exploring the taste and history of Zongzi

With the upcoming Dragon Boat Festival on June 12th, which falls on the 5th day of the 5th month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar, it dawned on me that I never really thought much about the origins of the Zongzi or sticky rice dumplings. Of course, I knew that Zongzi are traditionally eaten during the period of the Dragon Boat Festival, but when you are young and digging into something delicious, the story behind the food you are eating, never crosses your mind.

So how did we end up enjoying these delightful parcels of glutinous rice?

I was interested to find out that the Dragon Boat Festival celebrates the poet and government minister of the State of Chu, Qu Yuan, who lived during the Warring States Period of China. Chu was one of seven warring states at the time and the State of Qin posed a huge threat to his beloved country. Unfortunately, Qu’s attempt to warn his countrymen and King about Qin’s threat was unsuccessful and he was exiled. Qu’s poetry during the time of his exile is the reason why he is regarded as one of China’s most famous poets. In despair for his country’s future, Qu Yuan drowned himself in the Miluo river on the 5th day of the 5th month, and ever since, we have been honouring his memory by racing Dragon Boats. Zongzi are eaten on this day as it was said the people of Chu tried to save Qu’s body by throwing these pyramid-shaped dumplings in the river to feed the fish, rather than let them feed on Qu’s body.

Zongzi or bakzang as the Hokkien call it, (and a term I am more familiar with), is glutinous rice, stuffed with different ingredients and then wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves. These normally pyramid-shaped dumplings are then cooked by being steamed or boiled. One thing I love about Zong is that you do not have to wait till Dragon Boat festival to be able to eat them. Zong is one of my all time favourite ‘heavy-duty’ snacks and I used to love eating them as child, whenever I was back in Penang. I say heavy-duty because one of them can keep you full-up for a good part of the day, but if you are greedy, you can have a savoury followed by a sweet Zong. I am not going to say how to make them, except that I once watched my grandma dexterously make a dozen and it looked really simple, though, I can confidently say that I would make a botch job of it if I ever make them myself!

I recently discovered a glorious shop in Causeway Bay called Old San Yang (老三陽) that sells Shanghai style dumplings. These Zong are cylindrical in shape, but they taste just as moreish. The dumplings are made fresh everyday in their Kowloon factory and there are 23 kinds including salty, sweet and plain. My absolute favourite is the salty pork and egg rice dumpling followed by the Shanghai salty pork, minus the egg. Nothing beats the fatty goodness of the glutinous rice from the marinated pork fat seeping through. Zong can have a variety of fillings, and the usual ingredients are pork belly, mung beans, Chinese sausage, peanuts, chestnuts, shiitake mushrooms, salted duck eggs and conpoy. The sweet variety, including those sold at Old San Yang, 老三陽have red bean, red dates, osthmanthus or lotus seed paste.

One gluttonous day last month, I strolled to Old San Yang and bought my savoury dumplings and added a lotus seed to the mix. Fifteen minutes of boiling time later, and hey presto!, my Zongzi were ready. Glutinous heaven awaited and my friend and I cut into them with glee, exposing the pork and egg treasure inside. The lotus seed paste dumpling was delicious and comforting and unsurprisingly, I went into a food coma. Dinner was out of the question, but I had no regrets. Old San Yang had reignited my love for these parcels of joy.

So as Dragon Boat Festival approaches and you bite into a Zongzi, remember that all our food has an origin and have a think about our traditions and the significance of the food we eat. I know I will be from now on.

Happy Dragon Boat Festival!

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