On the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, is the Chinese festival known as 端午節 or Danwun Jie, “The Dragon Boat Festival”. According to the legend, in 278 BC, a poet know as Qu Yuan, who was also a trusted adviser to the emperor. One of his enemies the ruler of the Qin state, paid the emperor’s favorite mistress and the emperor’s brother to spread rumors about Qu Yuan in order to get the emperor to loose his trust in his adviser. As a result, the emperor sent the poet into exile. During his time in exile, he received a reputation for his honesty, kindness and honor. Upon hearing that the capital was captured by the Qin, he fell into a depression and wrote his last poem before carrying a giant rock to weigh himself down, he walked into the Milua River, committing suicide.
When the villager heard about his suicide, they raced their boats to save him, banging drums and splashing the water to scare the fishes and evil spirits from killing Qu Yuan, and throwing in rice dumplings into the water so that they would not consume his body. However his body was never found. Another legend is that a few nights after this, he appeared to a friend in a dream telling him that he had been taken by a River dragon, and so that he would not be eaten by the dragon, they were to make the rice dumplings in a three cornered package and throw that into the water.
That tradition is still carried on to today, when on the anniversary of his death, people gather to make the tri-cornered rice dumplings and to race dragon boats. This year the anniversary falls on the 19th of June. On Saturday, my family and I made these rice dumplings. There are a wide variety of rice dumplings depending on your family ethnicity. The northern Chinese make their dumplings in a longer shape, and fill it with sweet adzuki bean paste, the Southern Chinese make savory ones. Being of Southern Chinese decent and more specifically of Hokkien decent, we usually make the dark savory ones (It is dark because we use soy sauce instead of salt. We call it Bar Tzang, Zongzi ongzior Meat Dumplings as it usually contains meat, but I know of several Vegetarians who refer to it only as Tzang and rather than having meat, they fill it with mushrooms and black eyed peas only. Some also add the vegetarian ham, which I reckon tastes like spam. Hehehe. In our version we put in a chestnut, a piece of Chinese mushroom, and a piece of “3 layer pork” which is just pork with the fat and skin layer still on it. The fat is needed, as the dumplings themselves can dry out, and the fat layers leak out the fat to moistion the whole package. The rice mixture is then wrapped in giant bamboo leaves, and let me tell you, there is a trick to it, and it usually takes a couple of goes before you can get it right. The package is then tied with a string and boiled until the rice is soft, sticky and fluffy.
As there is just way too many variations of making it, I won’t bother putting up the recipe for it, but if you are curious as to what it tastes like, the Asian grocers usually have a box of it for sale around this time every year. This is a one of those treats which although may not look so special, is considered a treat as it is usually only made and eaten on a particular day every year. I find it tastes quite like a a package of fried rice without the peas. 🙂 So on this year if you should go see the Dragon boat races, enjoy a picnic on the foreshore eating some Zongzi and remembering the story of Qu Yuan.