For so long as I can keep in mind, I’ve heard the identical story yearly throughout Dragon Boat Competition. The lasting story has been handed down over centuries, every technology telling it to the following. Some years, a instructor on the Chinese language language faculty I dutifully attended each Sunday afternoon would cross round a printout recounting the traditional allegory. Different years, my father would recount the story on the breakfast desk—earlier than all of us dug right into a plate piled excessive with sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves.
The observance of Dragon Boat Competition, held yearly on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, is inseparable from this dish, which I grew up calling zongzi. Relying the place you’re on the planet, it goes by completely different names (together with joong and bak zhang) and could be candy or savory, made with completely different strategies and starring numerous fillings.
As with many holidays, precise particulars of the competition’s origins are hazy, with differing narratives colliding and coalescing over time. Probably the most enduring rationalization of why we observe the vacation is that the competition commemorates the poet Qu Yuan, who served as an advisor within the court docket of Chu throughout China’s Warring States interval (475 – 221 BCE). When he warned the emperor in regards to the looming risk posed by the state of Qin, others within the court docket disagreed and slandered him; the emperor, perceiving disloyalty, exiled Qu Yuan. The advisor’s instincts, nevertheless, had been proper; the Chu capital was captured, and a heartbroken Qu Yuan drowned himself within the river. Native villagers paddled out onto the water in boats to seek for his physique, beating drums and splashing the water to fend off fish and evil spirits. They tossed packets of rice into the river, to feed the fish and hold them away from Qu Yuan’s corpse. In keeping with folklore, these occasions helped give delivery to Dragon Boat Competition traditions that stick with it till today.
Regardless of the vacation’s somber origins, the time-honored customized of constructing and consuming zongzi has advanced right into a cherished (and year-round) affair. Making ready them is a labor of affection, normally a multi-day course of that features soaking the leaves in a single day, marinating the fillings for hours, and painstakingly wrapping and tying every package deal with twine. (My colleague Kat Craddock realized easy methods to make them from Mei Zeng, her Chinese language American buddy’s mom and a gifted house cook dinner who lives in Brooklyn.) I’ve witnessed—and took part in—the advanced course of numerous instances, as one of the vital famend locations in China to take pleasure in zongzi is my mom’s hometown of Jiaxing, a metropolis in Japanese China’s Zhejiang province. Wufangzhai, arguably probably the most well-known zongzi model within the nation, originated there, so for those who point out Jiaxing to anybody in China, there’s likelihood they’ll exclaim one thing about zongzi, even when they’ve by no means visited the town in particular person. At any time when my household reunites with our family in Jiaxing, zongzi is all the time our very first meal—and certainly one of my favourite issues on the planet to eat.
Although I’ve a comfortable spot for the zongzi from my ancestral hometown, among the best issues about sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves is the range of cooking strategies, fillings, and shapes discovered throughout China and Asia, with completely different areas popularizing their very own renditions of the snack. A unifying theme—in addition to being delicious—is that many varieties are strongly related to Dragon Boat Competition. Listed below are just a few varieties to take pleasure in this yr, and a few spots the place you will get them in New York Metropolis.
Cantonese-style sticky rice parcels usually characteristic savory substances like peanuts, salted egg yolks, Chinese language sausages, pork, and mung bean, the final of which supplies a creamy distinction to the gooey rice. Like with a lot Cantonese cooking, seasonings are comparatively gentle, leaving room for the inherent flavors of the person substances to shine. Even “the leaf releases its personal perfume,” says Sarah Leung, who writes the Chinese language meals weblog The Woks of Life along with her household. With so many alternative substances wrapped up in every particular person package deal, no two bites are the identical. Search for this number of sticky rice at Mee Sum Cafe or Ho Received Bake in Manhattan’s Chinatown.
Additionally emblematic of Southern China’s Cantonese delicacies is that this candy type that requires soaking the glutinous rice in lye water, an alkaline liquid that features potassium carbonate. This step makes the rice softer and stickier and causes the kernels to tackle an amber hue as they cook dinner. “Utilizing the alkaline will launch the colour from the leaves, so it form of dyes the rice into that yellow coloration,” says Maggie Zhu, who created the Chinese language meals weblog Omnivore’s Cookbook. The rice is commonly full of purple bean paste, and served with honey or sugar for added sweetness. Do that selection at Mee Sum Cafe or Ho Received Bake.
Northern Chinese language
It isn’t solely Southern China that prefers its sticky rice with a little bit of sugar. Candy varieties additionally dominate in Northern China, the place the rice doesn’t require any lye water and is thus chewier and firmer in texture. In keeping with Zhu, who grew up in Beijing, purple bean zongzi are fashionable there, although it’s additionally widespread to combine the entire beans straight into the rice. Attempt candy purple bean zongzi at Mee Sum Cafe (the place it’s labeled Shanghai-style, as this ingredient can be beloved within the jap Chinese language metropolis), or pay a go to to the Zongzi Woman who has offered completely different sorts of leaf-wrapped sticky rice exterior New York Metropolis’s Grand Road subway station for over a decade. Zhu’s household additionally likes so as to add dried fruit into candy mixtures: “My grandma and my mother, they normally make one with jujubes,” which steam alongside the rice and launch their perfume because the dish cooks.
While you unwrap sticky rice from bamboo leaves in Malaysia, the place the dish known as bak zhang, you’ll usually discover one nook of the rice has been dyed blue, courtesy of bunga telang, a butterfly pea flower. “It’s presupposed to deliver good luck and keep at bay evil,” says Christina Arokiasamy, a chef who hails from Malaysia. Galangal, coriander seeds, and white peppercorn give the sticky rice an herbaceous aroma. The dish additionally presents a stability between candy and savory, due to candied winter melon and pork stomach. Discover it at Kopitiam in Manhattan’s Decrease East Aspect.
In savory Shanghai-style zongzi, pork is the star of the present. For distinction and stability, these parcels usually embody each fatty and lean chunks of meat. Because the zongzi boil and cook dinner, the fats melts, depositing taste into each kernel. The ensuing style is luscious and wealthy, but doesn’t style heavy. Earlier than wrapping, cooks coat the rice and fillings in soy sauce, which imparts unparalleled umami. Have a style for your self at Chinatown’s Supreme Restaurant.
Annie Wang, a Taiwanese American meals author who blogs at Frites & Fries, grew up consuming a rendition of sticky rice emblematic of Taiwan. “For my household, each my mother and pop’s sides, we’re very pro-savory,” she says. Given the island’s strong shrimping trade, Wang explains, it’s no shock that zongzi from the southwest metropolis of Tainan usually embody dried shrimp, in addition to shiitake mushrooms, dried scallops, peanuts, and pork. Pattern a do-it-yourself model from the Zongzi Woman herself.