Wrapped and tied, I carefully slip off the string and begin to unroll the leaves. I breathe in an unfamiliar aroma, one that reminds me somewhat of a combination of both sweet tea and pickled meat.The glutinous rice ball within seems somewhat slimy and a sticky coating glazes the inside of the leaves as I carefully unroll the bundle. It is difficult to unroll the leaves without coating my fingers with this sticky glaze and I stop several times during the process to wash the sticky stuff off my fingers before I have the rice glob inside completely exposed. Cutting this mass of rice in half exposes a portion of meat, a small nut of which I am unable to identify and a darker colored mixture, perhaps the yolk of a salted duck egg, but I am not certain, packed inside.
Zongzi - traditionally eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival (Mandarin: Duanwu; Cantonese: Tuen Ng) which falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese calendar (approximately early-to mid-June), commemorating the death of Qu Yuan, a famous Chinese poet from the kingdom of Chu who lived during the Warring States period. Known for his patriotism, Qu Yuan tried unsuccessfully to warn his king and countrymen against the expansionism of their Qin neighbors. When the Qin Dynasty general Bai Qi took Yingdu, the Chu capital, in 278 BC, Qu Yuan's grief was so intense that he drowned himself in the Miluo River after penning the Lament for Ying. According to legend, rice dumplings were thrown into the river to prevent fish from eating the poet's body. Another version states that the dumplings were given to placate a dragon that lived in the river.
The following article by Olivia Wu, originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle, provides good information on zongzi and includes a recipe.
Zongzi Wraps Up a Meal in One
PDT Shanghai -- Zongzi are complete, rustic packages that hold much more than their literal contents.
In the United States, zongzi, or joong in Cantonese, are sometimes called Chinese tamales. It's good shorthand. Instead of a corn husk casing and corn mesa as the grain, zongzi use bamboo leaves and rice. The fillings can vary from meaty to confectionary, but, thankfully, haven't gone down the path of 31 flavors.
I'm always surprised that this food is celebrated at the start of the hot months, when the pure gut-level satisfaction, density, lush texture and temperature marks zongzi as more of a cold-weather food. In Shanghai, as well as in Chinatown and Chinese bakeries, restaurants and supermarkets throughout the United States, zongzi are sold year-round. In fact, in the fast-paced family life that is quickly becoming the norm, zongzi become the perfect snack or meal-in-one.
Every time I untie zongzi, the bamboo leaves glossy and sweet-smelling and the steam rising as the intricately shaped pyramid flops onto a plate, memories also spill out from the package.
My mother made the most heavenly zongzi, which I remember from my childhood in Thailand. Her Shanghai-style zongzi, lightly bound, allowed the grains of rice to remain distinct instead of cooking into a springy mass as is preferred in some other regions. The fat in the belly pork melted into a soothing custard, the juices running into the rice. Even while she wrapped them, the star anise and cassia bark in the seasoning rose in a heady fragrance.
Here in China, I have also come to appreciate the cultural import of this seasonal dumpling. Zongzi are the festival food for the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. (This year it fell on May 31.) The festival is called Duanwu Jie, and if a contemporary home cook ever makes zongzi, it is for the festival.
For the two weeks before, I could see and sense a crescendo in the sales of zongzi around town. Many high-end restaurants display beautifully boxed, vacuum-packed zongzi. At Xinhua Lo (Apricot Blossom Restaurant) on Fuzhou Lu, known particularly for its Cantonese-style zongzi, lines formed on the eve of the festival, while workers off-loaded a truckload at the front door.
But the very best zongzi are homemade. And in a compromise, many Chinese, myself included, search for the nearest example. I was lucky to find the one that makes me think of my mother's.
My search took me to the home of Ding Lishen. The address put him on Huaihai Zhong Lu, one of the most glamorous roads in Shanghai, filled with glitzy boutiques and jewelers, but his house was on an alley opposite a trendy store. It was a 1940s row house, and as soon as I stepped through the door I was taken back 60 years to pre-Communist China.
About 10 years ago, Ding and his wife began making zongzi for friends and soon began taking orders from neighbors. Over time, through word of mouth, their client base has come to include the sophisticated residents of Hong Kong, as well as Chinese from abroad, more than locals.
In the weeks around the festival, they and a bevy of workers produce up to 6,000 zongzi a day. Customers buy a large volume, take them home and freeze them in annual or biannual trips, backing my suspicion that zongzi are a year-round, perfect meal-in-one packet.
Most of the steady clients order by telephone and come around to Ding's living room -- where his friends are almost always sitting at a game of mah jongg. Occasionally, he'll have a small amount to sell out of the side window of his house, but says during the week of the Duanwu festival he never has extras to sell.
The Duanwu Festival is often translated as the Dragon Boat Festival, during which races are held. The popular story about its origins has to do with Qu Yuan, a famous poet and patriot statesman, in a time of war. Qu was an official in the Chu Kingdom (about 300 B.C.). When they lost the battle, Qu felt he should go the way of the lost kingdom, and so he threw himself into the river.
Warding Off Dragons
Qu was much beloved by the people, who wanted to protect him in his death. They began a ritual of feeding the fish by throwing rice and meat into the river. Appeasing and feeding the fish meant that they would protect Qu.
Dragons were believed to steal the food, so to prevent the food from getting to the dragons, the rice and meats were wrapped in bamboo leaves. The dragon boats sailed to ward off dragons that might prey on Qu.
What zongzi really ward off is hunger. This dense, rib-sticking food is hearty regional fare at its best. There are many variations. The traditional Cantonese version is often large; it weighs more than a pound and takes a squatter, square-based pyramid shape. The Shanghai zongzi are smaller and longer.
Some say that the shape of the dumpling, with its three, four or five points, is intended to resemble the horn of a cow, a sacred symbol in agrarian culture for blessing an abundant crop.
Cantonese zongzi rice is packed in more densely and the filling may contain up to six ingredients. By far the richest ingredient, besides meat, is the yolk of a salted duck egg -- an addition found in both savory and sweet variants.
The practice has bled into the Shanghai zongzi, where the yolk appears on some lists of zongzi variations -- in both sweet and savory versions. The classic Shanghai sweet version is made of white glutinous rice with a deep-red pureed red-bean filling.
Whichever the version, unbinding a hot zongzi is in itself a sensory experience. The more you eat and learn about it and accrue memories and traditions, the more the package delivers.
How to Stuff and Wrap Zongzi
Overlap the leaves, cup the ends and add rice and meat.
Cover the meat with rice and fold the leaf over the cup.
Curve the leaf over the sides of the rice-filled cup.
The tips of the leaf should extend beyond the heel.
Fold the tip over the cup to form a package.
Tie string around the zongzi, working from right to left.
The following is a classic Shanghai-style fresh pork zongzi wrapped in its traditional stretch-pyramid shape. Choose dried bamboo leaves (available in Asian markets) that are olive in shade - the brighter green ones may be artificially colored. Although you may substitute Boston butt for the pork belly, it is too lean, and without the melted fat basting the package as it cooks, the rice will not be glossy or taste as rich. Some people use leaner pork and add a few tablespoons of vegetable oil to the rice, but the effect is not the same.
The Meat Filling:
1 1/2 to 2 pounds pork belly
3 tablespoons soy sauce (Kikkoman)
2 tablespoons superior dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice wine, sake or dry sherry
1-inch piece cinnamon stick
2 star anise
3/4 teaspoon five-spice powder
3 cups short-grain glutinous rice (also called sweet rice)
2 tablespoons soy sauce (Kikkoman)
24 dried bamboo leaves (zongye ), available in Asian markets
12 three-foot-long cotton strings
1/4 cup brown sugar, for garnish (optional)
For the meat filling: Cut skin off the pork belly, including some fat, if you wish. Cut into 1-by-1-by-2-inch pieces. In a bowl, combine the soy sauce, dark soy sauce, rice wine, cinnamon stick, star anise and five-spice powder. Stir thoroughly and add pork belly. Cover and marinate overnight in the refrigerator.
For the rice: Rinse the rice several times and drain. Add soy sauce, stir and allow to stand at room temperature for 2 hours, or overnight in the refrigerator. Stir occasionally.
For the leaves: Select well-shaped leaves and rinse them. Soak in tap water overnight or soak in hot water for 30 minutes before using.
Assembling: Select 2 leaves that are about the same size and overlap them to make a 5-inch-wide piece. Fold 2 to 3 inches of the stem end inward to form a straight edge. You should have a 5-inch-wide and about 12-inch-long rectangle that tapers off into a leaf tip.
Using your left hand (if you're right-handed) cup the rectangle end near the stem to make a heel shape (see photo). Place 1 heaping tablespoon (or more) of the prepared rice in the "cup" and spread it about 3 inches toward the leaf tip. Place 1 to 2 pieces of the marinated meat over the rice. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons rice to cover the meat. The meat should be completely enveloped by the rice, on top, bottom and sides.
With your right hand, bring the empty part of the leaf over the rice-filled cup, curving the leaf over the sides and beyond the heel side. The tips of the leaf should extend a few inches beyond the heel. With your right hand, tie the string around the zongzi, starting on the right end and working toward the left hand. Do not tie string too tightly as the package will expand when cooked.
Cooking: Place the zongzi in a large pot or Dutch oven. Add water to cover, with a couple inches to spare. Cover the pot. Bring to a boil, then bring simmer on medium-low. Cook for about 1 hour, then turn down to low heat until the water is barely simmering and cook an additional 3 hours. Keep checking to make sure there is boiling water to cover the packages at all times.
To eat, snip the string and lift off the pointed part of the leaf. Gently unmold the rice and meat onto a plate, to keep its shape intact. You may place a teaspoon of brown sugar on the plate to allow the diner to dip the rice/meat filling into it, just for a brush of sweetness with the savory flavors.
Zongzi may be stored in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks and, if well wrapped, in the freezer for 2 months. To reheat zongzi from the refrigerator, boil for 10 to 15 minutes or steam over high heat for 30 minutes.
The calories and other nutrients absorbed from marinades vary and are difficult to estimate. Variables include the type of food, marinating time and amount of surface area. Therefore, this recipe contains no analysis.
I feel honored to receive this little gift of zongzi from Zhanpeng and Han Jing each June.
Continuing our little neighborly tradition, now it is my turn! I believe this time I shall make a batch of my special snicker doodle cookies to share with them.