Zongzi are Chinese rice
dumplings traditionally eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival
(Duanwu Jie) on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar year. At the most basic level, a zongzi consists of soaked glutinous rice
(short grain sweet rice) bundled in bamboo or reed leaves, and tied with string. The little packages of rice are then cooked in boiling water for a few hours. Once cooked and unwrapped, the rice will have become one dense and somewhat chewy mass
. In this plain "white" form, zongzi is only lightly flavored with the reed or bamboo leaves in which they were wrapped. Fancier sweet and salty variations, however, do exist:
Sweet: A plain zongzi may be dipped in sugar or honey prior to eating for an instant sweet treat. Sugar and whole red beans may also be mixed with the rice prior to being wrapped. This method creates a sweet and colorful zongzi. Sweetened red bean paste, dried Chinese dates, nuts, or fruit jams packed into the center can also be used to liven up zongzi.
Savory: Savory versions may have Chinese sausage (xiang chang), Chinese ham, Chinese dried "bacon" (la rou), chestnuts, dried salted duck, dried mung beans, peanuts, dried shrimp, shiitake mushrooms, dried scallops, and salty duck egg yolks packed in the middle.
Zongzi are usually wrapped in a pyramidal shapes roughly no bigger than what can easily be held in a grown man's hand. Some regions within China also tend to use only particular fillings. For example, Chinese dates are a common Beijing
-style filling. Cantonese
-style zongzi are known for savory fillings and are the type that is most commonly available in Overseas Chinese
communities. Chinese communities in Southeast Asian will use local ingredients and flavors
. The Japanese make sweet types called chimaki
and serve them for their Boy's Day
holiday. Other variations include using black instead of white glutinous rice, or precooking the rice and filling, or steaming instead of boiling, or even wrapping into a cylindrical shape or a flat paddle shape instead of a pyramidal one.
Zongzi is not the glutinous rice chicken dish called nuomi ji (or "lomai gai" in Cantonese) one often sees when eating dim sum. Nuomi ji usually does not have several of the fillings that are commonly found in zongzi. And nuomi ji is rather loosely wrapped (if at all) into square packets with lotus leaves and steamed. Chinese people also sometimes will toss a mixture of sticky rice and finely chopped preserved meats and dried fruits into their rice cookers to produce something akin to pilaf. But this dish is not zongzi either.
Eating zongzi is a way for Chinese people to celebrate the life and death of Qu Yuan (340-278 BC), a scholar-poet in the ancient State of Chu (475-221 B.C during the Warring States period, prior to the unification of China). During his life, Qu Yuan warned the leaders of Chu of the corruption within the government, but he was labeled a traitor and placed in exile. When the State of Chu did indeed collapse, Qu Yuan became distraught and commited suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River. The common people respected him and did not want the fish in the water to eat his corpse. Thus, they dropped packages of rice wrapped in leaves into the river for the fish to consume instead.
Although zongzi is associated with the Dragon Boat Festival in June, it may be eaten year round. Within China zongzi is often sold by neighborhood vendors on the street. Outside of Asia, zongzi can be found at larger Chinese markets or delis. Look for small, pyramidal packages wrapped in very dark olive green leaves and tied with cotton string or reeds. These are fully cooked but need to be reheated prior to eating. Usually simmering the zongzi in water over medium heat produces the best results. I wasn't allowed to turn on the stove as a kid, so I often used the microwave. The microwave tends to dry out zongzi, but I found that wetting down the outside leaves before microwaving helped to keep things a little more moist.
Zongzi from commercial sources, however, tend to be rather skimpy on fillings and heavy on the rice. The best quality zongzi are--at least in my experience living within Chinese communities in America--the ones that are received as gifts around late May and early June. Making zongzi is rather laborious work and only practical when made in large batches. Therefore, usually retired Chinese grandmothers and whomever else they can recruit will spend an entire day assembling and cooking several dozen or more zongzi to be given to their extended family and friends. In North America, I've heard non-Asians describe zongzi as "Chinese tamales." This may be a rather good description since, at least from what I have learned by reading, making and sharing tamales have a communal aspect as well.
Personally, I've always found it somewhat exciting to sample zongzi made by other families. It was always amusing to unwrap one and find out exactly what combination of fillings was inside--a little like opening presents on Christmas morning. And I still think zongzi is rather fun to eat since you get to sample all different flavors and textures of the hodge-podge of various ingredients stuffed inside.
Make Your Own Zongzi
Unfortunately my grandmother lives in China, and I don't exactly have a "family recipe." My mother made zongzi once, many years ago, by imitating the types we'd often receive as presents. The whole zongzi-making process may have been traumatic for her since she never attempted it again. A pity since I thought they turned out rather well. At any rate, this is the recipe she remembers following. This makes a typical savory Cantonese-style zongzi. The measurements are rough because there really is no "exact" recipe to follow and Mom never measured anything anyway.
Please note that making zongzi takes a great deal of patience and free time. I will update this recipe if I can ever manage to convince someone else's Chinese grandmother to divulge their secret techniques.
- Short-grain Glutinous Rice (Figure about 1 cup for every zongzi you want to make. Soak in water for 3 to 12 hours beforehand. Drain.)
- Bamboo Leaves (Depending on the size, about 2 to 3 leaves per zongzi. You can buy dried bamboo leaves at Asian markets. Soak in water for a few hours until they become pliable.)
- Sturdy White Cotton String (At least two feet per zongzi.)
Nuts and Beans
- Meats (For every zongzi, you'll want about a half inch by 2 inch long segment of each type of meat.)
- Chinese sausage (Easily found in any Asian market. Slicing them on a diagonal is more traditional.)
- Chinese "bacon" (Called "la rou." At the Asian market, look for something resembling a fatty slab of bacon with the lean meat portion almost black colored. If there's a hard rind attached, you should trim it off.)
- Dried Chestnuts (Also found in Asian markets. NOT water chestnuts. The chestnuts need to be soaked in water overnight. Use 2 to 3 chestnuts per zongzi.)
- Dried Mung Beans (Use the kind with the green skin already removed and soak in water overnight. Drain. Use about a tablespoon of mung bean per zongzi.)
- Raw Peanuts (About a tablespoon per zongzi. These don't need to be soaked.)
- Salty Duck Egg Yolk (one yolk per zongzi is standard, but more couldn't hurt.)
- Shiitake Mushroom Caps (Reconstitute dried mushrooms in water overnight. Remove the stems. Julienne the caps. Soak in soy sauce for two hours. Figure about half a large cap per zongzi.)
Take two or three bamboo leaves and fan them out slightly. Make a tight cone or funnel shape with them at about 2/3rds of the way down the length. Fill with about two tablespoons of rice. Add in one of the fillings. Fill with some more rice. Add another filling. Repeat. Usually the meats and egg are placed towards the center of the package, well buried in the rice, to trap in any oils they release during cooking. When you are done packing, tightly fold the leaves over and around your cone and bind with string. The bundle should be very secure, and rice should not be in danger of leaking out. Wrapping tightly enough is the hardest part about making zongzi, and it takes some practice. If you are having problems, try making smaller zongzi first.
After wrapping all your zongzi, place them in a large pot and boil in water over high heat for at least two hours. If your zongzi are rather large, four or five hours might even be necessary. If you aren't sure, it's better to cook for longer: it's impossible to overcook zongzi but it's difficult to recook zongzi once they are unwrapped. Add more water to the pot during cooking if you find the water level starts getting low.
If your zongzi turn out well, you can give them away as gifts in June. Cooked zongzi can be frozen, but this process tends to dry them out a little.
Note About the Fillings: Though this recipe makes the type of zongzi I like the best, I also think creative new fillings might work quite nicely too. The only guideline is that the fillings must be fairly sturdy and can withstand being cooked for several hours. Purists might frown, but I think Spam might work well. On the other hand, steak tartare with fennel pollen and blood orange foam would probably not be a good idea.
References for dates