With the year 2008 came some interesting changes concerning holidays in China.
There used to be only 3 holidays in this country: Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), which was during the school’s 5-week winter break but for businesses, was officially 3 days. May 1st holiday, which was for 3 days but with the weekend, it was counted as 5. Lastly, October 1st National Day, which was 2 days but extended to 5 or 6 by including weekends and having school make-up days the following weekend.
In an attempt to spread out the holidays a bit more, the government decided to take away two days from the May 1st holiday and put these somewhere else. Their decision was to choose two Chinese traditional festival days and make them into two new one-day holidays: April 7th, known as Qing Ming Jie (Tomb Sweeping Festival) and Duan Wu Jie (Dragon Boat Festival).
Tomb Sweeping Festival is a traditional day when families gather at the tombs of loved ones, clear the area of weeds and other debris accumulated over the years, and burn incense and paper money, which is supposedly sent to the dead in heaven to have spending money in the spirit world.
Dragon Boat Festival, however, has a bit more history behind it. It’s always celebrated on the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, which just happens to be today, June 8. With the added holiday, however, Monday is the official day off.
There are all sorts of theories as to the origin of this day but the most popular is the one that has to do with Qu Yuan (choo yu-ehn), a famous poet from the Chu state, who lived from 339 B.C. to 278 B.C.
Qu Yuan served in the court of Emperor Huai during the Warring States period (475 – 221 BC). He was a wise and erudite man who fought against corrupt leaders in the emperor’s palace and realm. Naturally, this antagonized quite a few court officials. They exerted their influence on the Emperor and convinced him that Qu Yuan was a dangerous person. Emperor Huai dismissed Qu Yuan from his presence and eventually exiled him.
During his exile, Qu Yuan traveled extensively, taught and wrote about his ideas. At this time, he composed many poetic masterpieces that have become invaluable for studying ancient Chinese culture.
At this time away from court, Qu Yuan saw the gradual decline of his mother country, the Chu State. Upon hearing that the Chu State was defeated by the Qin State, he was so distraught that he ended his life by flinging himself into the Miluo River.
After people heard he drowned, they were greatly dismayed. Fishermen raced to the river’s spot in their boats to search for his body. Unable to find him, people threw zongzi (a special traditional food), eggs and other food into the river to feed the fish, who might nibble on his remains so that there would be nothing left of him for the afterlife.
Since then, people started to commemorate Qu Yuan through dragon boat races, eating zongzi and other activities, on the anniversary of his death, the 5th of the fifth month.
I’m sure many of you have seen the dragon boat races either in person in your area, on TV or read about them in newspaper articles. But it’s the zongzi (zohng-zuh) that everyone in China really cares the most about, especially in areas where there are no dragon boat races taking place.
Zongzi is the most popular food for this particular festival as it reminds people of the importance of loyalty (Qu Yuan’s principles) and commitment to community (his attempted rescue by the fishermen who threw zongzi into the river).
Zongzi itself is made of special glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves, tied tightly together and then boiled or steamed for many hours. Wrapping and tying leaves takes a special skill, otherwise it opens up, the rice spills out, and you have a huge mess on your hands.
I should know. I tried making it only once. My rice freed itself from my loosely wrapped bamboo leaves and stuck fast, along with the fillings, to the sides of the rice cooker. It took me awhile to scrub the thing clean. After that, I bought my zongzi from the experts.
As the glutinous rice cooks, it congeals together and creates a sticky mass that adheres to the bamboo leaves. Zongzi are triangular shaped, pyramidal or rectangular depending on the maker. The most popular are the pyramidal, which are sold everywhere in China along streets and from small shops.
Inside the zongzi are popular fillings which differ from region to region. On the mainland, people prefer several kinds: the sweet red bean or the savory hunks of meat as well as egg yolk middles. In Taiwan, however, we had many more varieties, such as nuts (peanuts and pine nuts), dates, lotus seeds, sweet red and white bean paste, chunky meat pieces or lumps of pork fat.
So where exactly can you buy zongzi? At this time of year, it’s not difficult to find them, but where you choose most likely will depend on whether you like them or not. Every major chain grocery store is now selling them. They’ll either be frozen by manufacturers or freshly made by grocery food staff. Small convenience stores will carry them in freezers.
For the most part, store-bought zongzi are not so great. They’re cheaply made, priced higher, smaller and don’t have that nice, fresh taste to them of those piping hot straight from the steamer.
For the best zongzi, it’s wise to check out China’s numerous back alleyways. Many small shop owners or those selling snack foods from carts specialize in making zongzi only at this time of year. The owners will prepare 100 to 200 a day, selling them for 1.5 yuan each (20 cents) or give you a cheaper rate if you buy in bulk. You can even order zongzi ahead of time in case you’re expecting to give away to friends, business colleagues, or family members.
In all the cities I’ve lived in in China, I always knew the best zongzi places in town because people told me. But I had to search a bit around my Chengdu neighborhood since I wasn’t here last year to know where to go. I tried out those made in mass at the Trustmart, a frozen variety from a convenience store, a snack seller’s offerings and finally a family-owned traditional Chinese steamed food shop.
I think you can guess which turned out to be the best: definitely the traditional steamed food shop. The couple there has had plenty of experience in wrapping and cooking zongzi. I could tell they were well-known because as soon as they piled their bamboo containers high with their wrapped specialty items, people flocked around and bought them out in a matter of minutes. I was lucky enough to get some of the last ones before they sold out for the day.
If you’re an adventurous soul who likes trying something unique, you’d probably like chewy, sticky zongzi. It has a very distinct, different flavor from anything you’ve had in the States.
For me, a big one or 2 small ones are enough for a meal as they’re quite filling. The Chinese, however, eat them as a snack food. For Dragon Boat Festival, you rarely see people eating only zongzi but instead supplementing the meal with regular stir-fried dishes.
Millions of zongzi are bought all over China for this festival, but it’s a bit like any other popular holiday food item. It only tastes good during the season it’s meant to be eaten. By Tuesday, none of us will want to see or eat another zongzi for as long as we live.
Well, maybe not as long as we live, but at least until next year’s Dragon Boat Festival. By then, our pallets will be ready for yet another savoring of this very special Chinese traditional food: the zongzi.
Until next time, here’s wishing you a Happy Dragon Boat Festival and an additional "Ping An!" (Peace)
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