You can think of Zongzi as the Chinese version of a Mexican tamale. Also called a sticky rice dumpling, Zongzi is glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves. After being molded into a triangle or pyramid shape, the dumpling is boiled in water and the ingredients cook into a soft, sticky texture. In the north, the dumplings are often stuffed with sweet fillings like red beans and jujubes (Chinese dates) while Southern variations include savory fillings such as pork belly and shiitake mushrooms. You can enjoy it hot or cold, drizzled with honey or soy sauce, but remember—unwrap the leaves before digging in!
The Dragon Boat Festival
Zongzi is a classic food enjoyed during the Dragon Boat Festival, or duan wu jie (端午节). It’s celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month to commemorate famous Chinese poet Qu Yuan (476-221 BC). Qu Yuan served as the king’s minister in the State of Chu during the Warring States Period. He was beloved for his intelligence and loyalty, and these traits persisted even after the king banished him from his country. But without Qu Yuan’s advice, the State of Chu soon fell to the State of Qin. Overcome with grief in watching the demise of his country, the poet drowned himself in a river.
Legend says that when news of Qu Yuan’s death spread, mourning civilians rowed their boats to the river and dropped rice balls in the water, hoping the fish would feed on those instead to preserve Qu Yuan’s body. Since then, boat racing and eating Zongzi have become celebratory customs during the Dragon Boat Festival to honor the tragic, patriotic passing of Qu Yuan.