If you’re looking to learn about a comfort food that quickly became multicultural then look no further than the decadent rice dumplings made famous by Chinese culture. Zongzi a Chinese tradition, it is a delicious food and also known as Bakcang. Is a popular dumpling that originated in China along the Yellow River. Depending on where you purchase this treat, the inner ingredients are held together by a bamboo or reed leaf covering.
Inside, you’ll find an abundance of glutinous rice, or what those in the Western world refer to as “sticky rice”. Along with the rice, you’ll find that a variety of cooked meat, vegetables and fruit can be included! Zongzi needs to be cooked for several hours with whichever method you desire, steamed or boiled. The rice used can even be stir-fried with other flavors before being wrapped!
The Possibilities are Endless
Pork is a popular staple ingredient, though if you have a taste for chicken or beef, know that that is an option as well. Eggs are a common ingredient, prepared in many different styles from hard-boiled to salted duck eggs. There’s no limit to the vegetables that flow well with the chosen meat for each batch of dumplings. You may find yam or even zucchini as a choice!
Zongzi For Dessert
While Zongzi is commonly served as a main dish, there are variations of the meal that is strictly for those with a sweet tooth! Jianshui Zong is an example of this treat. Often the rice is treated with lye water to give it an attractive yellow color and either left plain or filled with sweet bean paste. Finished and served with sugar or sometimes even a light syrup!
Location Can Change Everything
Throughout the world, Zongzi has both different names and different variations. Dessert isn’t the only version you can find! In China, the north sticks to the basics of pork, dried shiitake mushroom and salted duck egg surrounded by rice. The south favors their choice of nuts, taro or even seafood!
Elements of Cooking Zongzi
Depending on the country, the wrapper can even change from traditional bamboo to shell ginger or fragrant leaves belonging to unique plants found on an island in Taiwan. Location even determines if the Zongzi you find will be boiled in water or steamed. Both of which affect the taste and texture of the ingredients. One variation, the Jia Zong, ditches single grain rice all together in favor of using rice flour! This results in not only a smaller sized Zongzi. but also a stickier texture since this particular Zongzi is typically lacking other fillings.
Zongzi can be as sweet or salty as the consumer or cook prefers. You can opt for a tapioca filling if you’re looking for something similar to the Jianshui Zong or you can lean towards a Southern-style if you favor pork fat or belly, chicken or even Chinese sausage!
Enough about what exactly a Zongzi is. let me tell you about where they originated! For over two thousand years, the Chinese have honored the life and death of a beloved man named Qu Yuan. Made famous by the beautiful poetry he created, inspired by his country. He was loyal to the King and attempted to warn both his King and countrymen about an impending invasion.
The result would prove to be devastating. No amount of warning helped to prevent his country from being taken over and out of sheer grief, he drowned himself in a nearby river, unable to face his country changing beneath a King he didn’t vow to serve.
In Chinese culture, it is disrespectful to the deceased if the corpse is consumed by animals. For the Ancient Chinese, if a body is destroyed, the soul becomes a ghost without the possibility of ever being reincarnated. Therefore containers of rice were allegedly thrown into the river to prevent fish from consuming his body. And this is where the staple ingredient to Zongzi was born.
Dragon Boat Festival
One of the many things that consuming Zongzi represents is not only showing your admiration of the dragon but also to encourage protection for Qu Yuan’s body. Some even decorate Zongzi to resemble a dragon before tossing them in the river to later be consumed by marine life.
The Dragon Boat Festival is yet another way for Chinese people to pay their respects to both the Dragon worship culture and to the life and death of Qu Yuan. Many decorate their boats to resemble a Dragon before joining the popular boat races. According to Chinese legends, Dragons are the gods of water and paying respect to the dragons only further protects the spirit of Qu Yuan.
Hunting Down Zongzi
Between late-May to mid-June, you’ll find thousands of sticky rice dumplings for your consumption around Asia! Buying from a store may result in a fast solution to your cravings, but tasting Zongzi carefully prepared with love and generations of experience is incomparable. Aside from finding variations you may have never even heard of before available for purchase, you’ll find festivities including racing boats down the river or paying your respects at a temple with friends.
Visiting China during the Duanwu Festival would deliver the most authentic experience if you wish to indulge in the rich history of Qu Yuan or sample the variations of Zongi distributed in the market. But Zongzi and the legend attached to it has resulted in the dumplings becoming highly requested. It is now common to find the dish available for purchase throughout Asia at any given time of the year.
While modern changes in the culinary world allow us to purchase Zongzi to pop in our steamers at home, nothing compares to the culture surrounding the dish. To celebrate a tradition and honor the respected culture from which this dish originated. A dish made not only to share with loved ones but to prepare with loved ones.