Sticky rice dumplings (粽子, zong zi in Mandarin), is traditionally eaten to celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival ( 端午节, duan wu jiein in Mandarin), which takes place on May 5th in the Lunar calendar (approximately beginning-mid June in the Gregorian calendar).
The popular modern story of the Dragon Boat Festival goes roughly like this (please forgive/ correct any errors). There was once a government official and poet named Qu Yuan (340–278 BC). He treated the common people well and was generally admired. He tried to advise the Emperor to protect the country against a larger adjacent nation. However, the Emperor disagreed and banished him from the country instead. A few decades later, his beloved country was conquered by the larger nation he tried to warn the Emperor about. Overwhelmed by despair, he drowned himself in a local river. Upon hearing this news, villagers paddled dragon boats to save him. This is said to be the beginning of the dragon boat races. When they were unsuccessful, the peasants made sticky rice dumplings and threw them into the river, so that the fish would eat the dumplings instead of his body. This is said to be the reason for making and eating zong zi.
I’ve been wanting to make zong zi for months. Partially due to a desire to connect with my Chinese heritage, partially out of nostalgia — perhaps to re-create the memory of my young self sitting on a stool, holding the string to help my mom as she wrapped zong zi filled with stewed pork and glutinous rice, while the fragrant reed leaves perfumed our entire apartment.
It’s for these reasons that traditional foods like zong zi hold such a special place in my heart. You won’t find sticky rice dumplings on Instagram or Pintrest, and they’re unlikely to be featured as the latest nutritional “superfood”. But they were a part of my childhood and they represent a part of my cultural identity. Making and eating zong zi doesn’t only fuel my body, it nourishes my spirit.
There are many regional variations on zong zi. Similar dishes are also enjoyed throughout South East Asia (Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, and Thailand to name a few). The ones I made included non-traditional fillings, which were inspired by my Chinese heritage and Filipino co-workers. The fillings included: black and white glutinous rice with honey dates (left), white glutinous rice with roasted sesame seeds & peanuts (middle), and white glutinous rice with purple yam and coconut (right).
Sticky rice dumplings are a “special occasion” food. And although they are available in Asian supermarkets, making it myself gave me a deeper appreciation for all the effort and time that goes into this little bundle. Whether you purchase a zong zi for the Dragon Boat Festival, or make them yourself, I hope you cherish this labour of love!
Eat This Mindfully
Prepare: Take a few deep breaths and assess your hunger and fullness levels before eating. Notice any thoughts, feelings, or emotions you have around eating this particular food.
Look: What shapes, colours, and textures do you see? Is this new or familiar to you?
Smell: Can you smell the bamboo leaves? The glutinous rice? The filling ingredients?
Taste: Is the taste sweet or savory? How does the texture of the sticky rice feel in your mouth? Does any one particular ingredient stand out to you?
Check in: What changes do you notice in your hunger and fullness? How do you know when you’re ready to stop eating?
- ~ 40 dry bamboo leaves, soaked in water for 24 hours at room temperature
- 5 cups white glutinous rice (long grain preferable), soaked in water overnight and drained
- 1/2 cup roasted skinless peanuts
- 1/4 cup each roasted black & white sesame seeds
- 1/4-1/2 cup sugar (to taste)
- 1/2 tsp salt
- Combine all filling ingredients in a food processor and process until it is the consistency of wet sand: crumbly, but holds together when pressed. This is now ready for use.
- 1 purple yam, boiled, peeled, diced into 1 inch cubes
- 1/4 cup canned young coconut meat, cut into ~ 0.5 inch x 0.5 inch pieces
- 1/2 cup black glutinous rice, soaked overnight
- 12 honey dates, pitted and halved
- Check out this video (10 min, very thorough!): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DmO5Ezy43ao
- A shorter one that only shows the wrapping part (2 min): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n0Wtq8-0ni4
- I only used 1 leaf per zong zi, but using two (like the videos show) is a good idea, especially as it helps prevent the filling from leaking out if one leaf accidentally tears. Don't forget to double the number of bamboo leaves you soak if you choose to do this.
- Pre-cut the twine before starting to wrap the zong zi, 30 -40 cm is a good length to start.
- Be generous with the filling, using more filling and less rice gives you stronger flavour, and looks prettier too! Pack down the rice and filling in each dumpling well before tying it up with twine.
- To cook, you can boil them for 1.5 hours (bring them up to a boil in a large covered pot over high heat, then use medium heat). Or, you can pressure cook them for 45 minutes.
- Stewed pork, Chinese sausage, cooked, mashed & salted mung beans, sweet red bean paste, salted duck egg yolks, stewed peanuts, Chinese BBQ pork, stewed chicken, dried oysters, cooked + peeled shrimp, Chinese pickled vegetables, cooked tofu, vegetarian mock meat, cooked shiitake mushrooms, anything cooked/ ready to eat really!