We ate these delicious rice dumplings (ba tzang in Taiwanese, zong zi in Mandarin, zong in Cantonese) in celebration of what I only know as ba tzang day. (In California, I’ve seen these being sold as “Chinese tamales,” but that’s just weird. Like Latin American tamales, yes, these are made of starch and meat wrapped in leaves, in this case glutinous or sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves, but there is no known historical or culinary connection between the two!)
My Toishanese mother-in-law took on the laborious task of making her excellent version, freezing them, and sending them back with my husband from NYC to SF last week, with the reminder that we should eat them today. “What’s this holiday about?” I asked my husband. He shrugged, saying that he knew only that we should eat these savory packets of sticky rice, it was that time. Because of my husband’s and my own somewhat embarrassing ignorance of the significance of this holiday, I turned to the web. We don’t want our kids to inherit our ignorance!
According to the New World Encyclopedia, the tradition of eating zong zi as part of the Dragon Boat Festival (Duan Wu) has origins in the tragic suicide of a well-loved Chinese poet, Qu Yuan, who was born in 340 BC in modern-day Hubei province.
“Qu Yuan was a gifted scholar, and attained a high position at court. A champion of political loyalty and truth, eager to maintain the Chu state’s sovereignty, he advocated a policy of alliance with the other kingdoms of the period against the hegemonic state of Qin, which threatened to dominate them all. According to legend, the Chu king fell under the influence of corrupt, jealous ministers who slandered Qu Yuan, and banished him. It is said that Qu Yuan returned first to his family’s home town. He spent much of his time in exile traveling the countryside, collecting legends and rearranging folk odes. He produced some of the greatest poetry in Chinese literature, expressing his fervent love for his state and his deep concern for its future.
According to legend, his anxiety brought him to an increasingly troubled state of health. During periods of depression, he would often take walks near a certain well, where he would look upon his reflection in the water and see himself, thin and gaunt. In the legend, this well became known as the “Face Reflection Well.” Today on a hillside in Xiangluping in Zigui, Hubei province, there is a well which is considered to be the original well from the time of Qu Yuan.
In 278 B.C.E., King Chu was captured, and the capital, Ying, was taken soon afterwards by General Bai Qi of the state of Qin. Upon receiving this news, Qu Yuan is said to have written the lengthy poem of lamentation called “Lament for Ying” and later to have waded into the Miluo river in today’s Hunan Province holding a great rock in order to commit ritual suicide as a form of protest against the corruption of the era.
Popular legend has it that villagers carried their dumplings and boats to the middle of the river and desperately tried to save him, but were unsuccessful. In order to keep fish and evil spirits away from his body, they beat drums and splashed the water with their paddles. They threw rice into the water as a food offering to Qu Yuan and to distract the fish away from his body. However, late one night, the spirit of Qu Yuan appeared before his friends and told them that he had died because of a river dragon. He asked his friends to wrap their rice into three-cornered silk packages to ward off the dragon. These packages became a traditional food known as zongzi, although the lumps of rice are now wrapped in reed leaves instead of silk. The act of racing to search for his body in boats gradually became the cultural tradition of dragon boat races, which are held on the anniversary of his death every year.
Today, people still eat zongzi and participate in dragon boat races to commemorate Qu Yuan’s sacrifice at the Dragon Boat Festival (Duan Wu festival), the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar.”
As for the recipe, I can’t say I’ve made these myself. My mother-in-law’s is filled with pork, dried shrimp, boiled peanuts, and a piece or two of lap cheong (Cantonese sausage).
My mother’s Taiwanese version has a combination of soy-braised pork, salted duck eggs, boiled peanuts and shallots, which we eat with soy sauce with tons of minced garlic mixed in. There aren’t too many recipes on the web, as this is the kind of unwritten recipe that is passed down through families cooking together. I did find a wonderful post and recipe by Joyce Lee of More Than Just Cooking on Serious Eats from last year. I am going to try to get my mother to share her recipe, but until then, that post is a great start.
Do any of you make ba tzang/zong zi? Do you have a recipe to share? If so, please do!