Zongzi. (But you’re going to learn a little bit more than rice oragami.)

Part 1: Learn About the History

Two weeks ago, Adam Rapoport, the Editor-in-Chief and food media mogul of Bon Appetit, resigned from his position. While the apparent cause was the resurfacing of a culturally appropriating halloween costume, this minute fumble opened up a whole can of beans. It really cut the cheese not just for Rapoport, but other famous white chefs such as Alison Roman of the New York Times Cooking, as well as once beloved Bon Appetit Test Kitchen staff. Many chefs were accused of “Columbusing” cultural ingredients, connoting Christopher Colombus who happened to “discover” the Americas that had actually thrived centuries before without him. So why am I starting a Dragonboat zongzi recipe with the fresh roots of a rumor weed? Food is inherently political. Food––for many, a sense of relief––may subjugate marginalized groups. Though holiday foods reunite families over tables, it may also tear people apart.

Image may contain Bowl Plant Food Dish Meal Vegetable and Produce
The thumbnail of Bon Appetit’s rescinded pho video from 2017. The producers compared pho to ramen, the Japanese noodle soup that pho has nothing to do with. They then layered onto the title: “PSA: This Is How You Should Be Eating Pho.”

As a cultural anthropologist and Asian food writer, this is what I think: as long as we educate ourselves on the history of the ingredient and appreciate it for what it is rather than what is can do for us, we should only but constantly discover what other cultures have to offer. Food is a way to both understand how food has shaped humans and how humans have shaped it.

The History of Zongzi

Only during the Jin Dynasty were zongzi designated as the official festival food, though the custom fell to earlier and more frequent times. As early as the Spring & Autumn Period (770 – 476 BC), cooks wrapped rice with loquat leaves into a horn shape or filled bamboo tubes with rice. These envelopes compressed the ingredients, provided a non-stick surface, and fed the rice aromatic tones. During the Han Dynasty, people soaked millets in alkaline ash water and formed square shapes. Because of the alkaline millets’ popularity in the Guangdong Province, the region earned the title “Guangdong alkaline zongzi 广东碱水粽”. The Tang Dynasty used purely white rice and tapered the shape to a diamond. In the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, the wrapping material shifted from loquat leaves to bamboo leaves. 

While shapes and materials evolved over time, so did the flavors. Innovators enhanced the simplicity by adding dense ingredients, juxtaposing the lightness of the rice with poultry meat and chestnuts, or the sweet notes of red dates and red beans.

Every year in early May, households gather to wrap Zongzi, a cultural experience and a delectable one for the mouth, and exchange these bundles of care and thoughtfulness as gifts. Zongzi now feature all dynastic shapes, including soft-edged and angular triangles and squares. Sweet and savory still dominate the flavors– but similar to how different time period favored particular forms, different regions now host distinct fillings. Jujube dates plug zongzi of the North, whereas mung bean, pork belly, bean paste, eight treasures, ham, mushrooms, and egg yolk spread Southern dining tables with a meal for the whole family, even your picky aunt. The only epidemic that spread around the country and occupied the stomach were zongzi, which has spread to North Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asian countries.

Triangles of glutinous rice deliver soft fatty sensations to the tongue, encasing a rich history and variety.

a lyrical ode to zongzi, sung by me

Part 2: Understand the Ingredients

  • 30-35 bamboo leaves or zongye. Don’t go Colombusing for bamboo leaves in your local Asian supermarket and call it the next Keto taco shell. It is often used as a wrapping for many Chinese dishes, specifically holiday ones such as the Green Dumpling of Qingming Festival; meanwhile, it also infuses the floral, fragrantly herbal aroma into sticky rice.
  • 1 lb. pork belly, so fatty that the oil smothers the rice
  • 3 links of sausages, again for the animal fat
  • 3.5 oz chestnuts: a lionized nut from the Chinese. Once roasted, it sensationalizes the meaty flavor with a sweeter, nutty note.
  • 1/2 cup of dried shrimp: used most often to flavor vegetable dishes.
  • 1 cup of dried mushroom: once you soak these mushrooms, a whole new flavor forms. It gives the zongzi a stout chewiness that contrasts the pull-apart texture of the pork, as well as the qqTaiwanese term for chewy texture of the rice.
  • 3 C rice
  • 1/2 cup dried shallots
  • 2 tbs cane sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp five spice powder
  • 1/4 C soy sauce

Part 3: Let’s do it

In order to achieve a soft, chewy texture without overcooked strings of meat, follow a sequential order. This timely mise-en-place will formalize and familiarize you with the recipe.

  • Prepare the bamboo leaves

    Soak in water overnight, use a clean cloth to clean each of them.

    Boil the leaves for 5 minutes in a pot water with salt. Rinse with cold water.

    Trim off the stems, store in a seal plastic bag to keep them moist.

  • Make the sauce

    Soak the dried shrimp in water.

    After about an hour, mix 4 TBS of soaking water with the soy sauce, then add sugar, salt, and five spice powder. Stir well.

    Give it a whirl!

  • Prepare the rice

    Wash and rinse the rice. Soak it in water for 2 hours.

    Soak

    Rinse

    Cook

    Preheat non-stick pan on low heat. Add 2 TBS of oil, add rice, stir fry for 3 minutes; add water so rice won’t stick to the pan, transfer to a bowl.

  • Cook the filling

    Brown the pork and sausages in the well-oiled pan.

    After browning, add shrimp and shallots.

    Add the sauce mixture, cook until a small amount of liquid remains. 

    Add mushroom and chestnuts, continuing to stir fry until the ingredients glisten, a signal of complete caramelization. Set aside in a bowl.

  • Prepare the strings

    Cut 12 cotton strings 27 inch-long each.

    Gather all 12 strings, tie a loop knot on one end, then securely hang them on a hook, a refrigerador door, or a cabinet knob.

  • Wrap the zongzi

    Pick 2 leaves, overlap them one over the other––shiny side up, tip to stem, and small one on top. Fold the 2 leaves into a cone shape (think about the rainbow ice you purchase at the beach ice cream vending machine, that wide and deep of a cone).

    Add 2 TBS rice, pack them down, then add 2 TBS pre-cooked fillings, top them with more rice. Pack everything them down with four flat fingers.

    Rice

    Filling

    Rice

    Carefully fold the top leaves over the rice, fold in the sides, and fold down the extra part of leave.

    While holding the zongzi, go to the hanging string, place the zongzi half way of the string, wrapping the string around once, tug till it is snug, go around once more, them tie a knot.

    Christmas wreath
  • Cook the zongzi

    In a big pot with boiling water, drop the dozen of zong zi and their strings in the water, cover, boil for 1.5 hours, add water if needed.  The zongzi should be submerged underneath the water level. Once done, take zongzi out on a plate to cool.

  • Serve & Store

    Cut the string, peel off the bamboo leaves, and serve with chilly sauce if you like.

    If you would like to store it, zongzi can be kept in the fridge up to one week, or freezer in freezer bag for up to one month.

Part 4: Review

I hope this experience was as culturally immersive as it was fun for all of you. From now on, and in tangent with my Celebrate Together Movement, I aim to reproduce this rich cultural history of ingredients and food. While holiday foods always accompany a story, it’s not only imperative but merely intellectually engaging to learn about these stories and better understand how food has shaped cultures and people.

What have you learned? Let me know in the comments section or contact me wang.v.michaela@gmail.com

Published by holidaysallyearround

For most cultures, holidays serve as the only opportunities in the year in which we come together: to reunite with faraway relatives, reconcile our past ancestors, and refill stomachs. And for most, holidays fall deep into history, myths, or grandma's fictitious tales that dictate the food boiling after a sacrificial ceremony to the decorations adorned on doors.

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