Tomorrow is a public holiday for the Dragon Boat Festival (Duanwujie). The festival is famous for its colourful dragon boat races. But it is equally well-known for being the time to indulge in bamboo-covered sticky-rice dumplings known as zongzi 粽子, or more commonly in Taiwan, rouzong 肉粽.
According to legend, the genesis of the Dragon Boat Festival was the suicide of Qu Yuan, who was a royal advisor in the state of Chu. He was exiled after he opposed the king’s alliance with the state of Qin; the Qin regime later conquered Chu, and Qu Yuan (who had warned Qin would do this) threw himself into the Miluo River and drowned. Locals paddled out on boats and threw rice into the river so that the fish would not eat his body. Thus the origin of dragon boat racing and rice dumplings.
A generation or so ago, most families would make zongzi ahead of the Dragon Boat Festival, with recipes and techniques handed down carefully from one generation to another. (It reminds me of my Nana’s tradition of making plum puddings every year ahead of Christmas.) These days, fewer and fewer people make their own zongzi. It is just too convenient to buy them — you can even order zongzi made by famous chefs at the corner 7-Eleven, or even buy baked or sweet varieties. Some friends even gave us a gift of ice-cream zongzi. But making traditional zongzi is not hard once you know how — although it does involve some preparation and some perseverance in learning to fold the bamboo zongzi parcels.
Recently, my friend Donna shared with me her mother’s secret zongzi recipe. Donna is originally from Hong Kong, so her zongzi are Cantonese style. A key difference between Cantonese and Taiwanese zongzi is the shape: Donna’s zongzi are shaped like a rectangular parcel, while in Taiwan they are triangular and smaller. Taiwanese rouzong usually contain pork, peanuts and mushrooms (although there are differences between Northern and Southern Taiwanese zongzi), whereas Donna’s zongzi are bursting with a treasure-chest full of ingredients.
The night before you make zongzi, you should do the following:
- Cut 600g of fatty pork spare-ribs into 2cm cubes and marinate with 1 tablespoon of five spice powder and a generous teaspoon or two of salt; and
- Soak 80 pieces of dried bamboo leaves in water.
The next morning:
- Wash 1.2kg of glutinous white rice and soak in water for at least two hours, then drain;
- Wash 600g of de-shelled mung beans (green beans) and soak for at least two hours, then drain;
- Soak two large handfuls of dried shiitake mushrooms in warm water for at least 30 minutes until reconstituted, drain and chop;
- Scrub the bamboo leaves thoroughly (don’t assume they are clean after their overnight soak), and place and sort into two piles with the larger leaves in one pile and the smaller in the other;
- Soak a few handfuls of dried scallops in water to reconstitute them, then set aside;
- Prepare a small bowl of small dried shrimps; and
- Prepare a small bowl of salted duck egg yolks.
Donna lined her table with newspaper (helps with the cleaning up), and then displayed all the ingredients needed for making the zongzi on the table. This created an assembly line.
Step 1: Choose two large bamboo leaves. Make sure that the leaf veins are facing towards you; the outside of the finished zongzi should be smooth. Make a small cross with the leaves. Bend the leaves to make a boat shape (this step takes a bit of practice).
Step 2: Fill the boat shape with a few tablespoons of the soaked sticky rice. Top with a sprinkling of mung beans.
Step 3: Top the rice and mung bean mixture with some chopped mushrooms, a piece of marinated pork, dried shrimps and the scallops.
Step 4: Lastly, top with one or two salted duck yolks. (These are the bright yellow orbs in the photo that look like candied fruits.)
Step 5: Top with more mung beans and sticky rice. The mound should be generous but not overflowing.
Step 6: Carefully fold the end of the bamboo leaves over the mixture to form a package.
Step 7: Take a smaller bamboo leaf, and firmly but gently use it to wrap the right edge of the zongzi. Tuck the ends underneath.
Step 8: Take another small bamboo leaf, and use it to wrap the left side of the zongzi, tucking the ends underneath. You should now (hopefully) have a nice, neat package.
Step 9: Take a long piece of twine, and use it to wrap the zongzi. You might need to hold one end in your mouth in order to use both hands. Wrap firmly but not too tightly, as the rice inside the zongzi will expand during cooking.
Step 10: Place in a large saucepan with a lid. Begin at step 1 and wrap another zongzi. (This recipe should make approximately 20 zongzi.)
Step 11: Cover the zongzi with water, and bring the saucepan to the boil. Reduce heat, cover and cook for four hours topping up with water as necessary. (Yes, four hours: it is important not to reduce the cooking time or the ingredients may not cook properly.)
Step 12: Eat straight away while hot. Alternatively, allow to cool and store in the refrigerator until needed. Reheat in a steamer, or unwrap the bamboo leaves and reheat in a microwave.