Snapshots from Asia: Dragon Boats, Rice Dumplings, and Cheat’s Sticky Rice
In the States, I generally rely on the appearance of traditional festive foods to alert me to upcoming celebrations. But now that I’m back in Asia, it’s impossible to miss the fanfare that accompanies the various festivals—firecrackers are lit, special, back-breakingly-tedious-to-make foods are prepared, the house is cleaned, gods are placated, married folks give singles cash (now this ritual, I like), and so on.
The Story of Duan Wu Jie, the Dragon Boat Festival
This past Sunday, the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, Chinese communities around the world celebrated Duan Wu Jie—also known as the Dragon Boat Festival. Legends abound, but the most popular rendition of the festival’s origins reference poet-patriot Qu Yuan in 278 BC. Devastated when his country was conquered by invaders, Qu Yuan cast himself into the Miluo River. Because he was well-loved by the people, locals threw leaf-wrapped parcels of cooked rice into the Miluo, hoping to tempt fish away from eating his body, as well as to bargain for his life with a dragon that lived in the river. Villages also trawled the waters looking for Qu Yuan’s body, making a massive din in a bid to scare away fish. Today, teak rowboats holding up to 20 peddlers, a drummer, and a tiller are rigged with flamboyant dragon regalia and race in competitions to commemorate the villagers’ original search for the patriot’s body.
Of greater relevance to Serious Eaters, the leaf-wrapped rice parcels known as zongzi used by the villagers as decoys have grown fancier (from what I imagine to be the original plain or bean-filled versions) and are often downright delicious.
How to Make Zongzi
Surprisingly, the bamboo leaves and dried grass used by the villagers thousands of years ago are still favored by home cooks when wrapping rice parcels. Less commonly, banana, lotus, pandan, and Japanese ginger leaves are also used, imparting distinctive flavors to the rice.
Rice dumplings or zongzhi can take days of prepping and the seemingly Herculean endeavor tends to be a family affair: First, the leaves are folded and formed into water-tight cones. Then, seasoned rice and a host of ingredients—including but not limited to pork, salted duck egg yolks, dried shrimp, shitake mushrooms, chestnuts, and beans—are packed in. Sweet versions of rice dumplings often feature red bean paste, jujube dates, and candied winter melon, or are left plain and eaten dipped in palm sugar syrup. Finally, dried grass is wound and tied about the leaf parcel, shaping it into a squat pyramid before the finished rice dumplings are carefully lowered into a pot of boiling water.
Convenient to Eat, Less So to Make
Rice dumplings make excellent road trip sustenance because they are compact, filling, and inexpensive. They keep well even in warm weather and taste just as good at room temperature. Most importantly, they come in their own leaf packaging that can be slowly unraveled as the eater chomps away, eliminating the need for utensils. As such, they are available year round, though never as prominently as in the weeks preceding the Dragon Boat Festival—that’s when the price of a single rice dumpling easily triples! As testament to their portability, I’ve spied many a Greyhound bus driver and weary traveler digging into one (myself included).
There are numerous recipes for making your own rice dumplings online. But though they’re considered easy to make once you get the hang of it, I doubt I’ll ever have the patience to fastidiously tuck in all the leafy corners (so water doesn’t seep in), to take care in loosely compacting the uncooked grains (so you don’t wind up with an unappetizing lump), or to coax the parcels into respectable-looking pyramids. I certainly cannot imagine painstakingly prepping each filling ingredient to the appropriate stage of doneness—so nothing ends up overcooked or undone at the end of the four hour simmering process.
Instead, my (admittedly, not terribly traditional) family’s maxim is, “if it tastes good, who cares what it looks like?” Since most of the work (and headache) in making rice dumplings is in individually prepping ingredients and wrapping parcels, my mom simply assembles the raw ingredients and tosses the lot into a pressure cooker. Et voilà! You get the same yummy sticky rice dish in under an hour. Want to travel with it? My mom packs single servings of the rice into ziplock bags. Because the rice is sticky and will obligingly clump, you can pop neat bitefuls into your mouth on the go—no utensils required.
Try making my mom's simplified sticky rice dish with this recipe for Cheat's Sticky Rice.
About the author: Wan Yan Ling is an impoverished grad student and sourdough finger-crosser living in Rhode Island. She can usually be found in the kitchen procrastinating on "real work" or online tracking down obscure recipes. Ling thinks eating alone is no fun, and she still believes in hand-mixing.