Dating as far back as 402-221BC, this is a festival with a 2500 years old story. This was how ZongZi (sticky rice dumpling), today commonly known as "Bak Chang" was invented.
The story begins like this... Once upon a time, in the ancient state of Chu, lived a noble scholar and patriot named Qu Yuan (屈原). He was a poet and an advisor to King Huai of the Chu Kingdom. Qu Yuan was well-respected and adored by the people. At that time, China was made up of 7 warring states and Qu Yuan was worried about the safety of Chu and warned the King of the impending treat from a neighbouring state, the Qin Kingdom. However, the King ended up listening to his corrupted ministers instead and exiled Qu Yuan to the southern region of ChangSha. Back at the Palace, without his best advisor, King Huai lost his kingdom to the state of Qin. Upon hearing the sad news, Qu Yuan was filled with sorrow and he threw himself in the MiLuo river. Villagers raced their boats to find him but was not able to save and recover Qu Yuan. Hence, they made rice dumplings and threw them into the river to keep fishes away from eating his body. Villages also beat drums to scare the evil spirits away. And from these came about the cultural practices of the Dragon Boat Festival, which is celebrated on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month. That's the legend behind the ZongZi that we are eating today. No wonder this is a Chinese festive delicacy.
It's sticky and flavourful
So what is ZongZi? ZongZi is basically glutinous rice filled with savoury or sweet fillings wrapped in bamboo leaves then cooked in boiling water. It is sticky and flavourful after cooking and it involves very tedious and specific preparations but it's worth every bit of effort. I have made several attempts this year and after researching and testing out, here are some basic steps to help you get started (for those who have been thinking of trying to make for the first time)
Prepare the ingredients: This means to soak the hard-to-cook ingredients and the marinate the meat (if you are making the savoury type) a night before. Pork belly is a common favourite but for mine, I made it with chicken thigh and dried oyster, which the taste is not at all compromised as the chicken meat is sealed with the marinate and cooked to perfection. If you want to have a nicely flavoured ZongZi, you will need to flavour each and every of the ingredients, except for salted egg yolk. The mushrooms, dried oysters and chestnuts (for savoury ZongZi) needs to be soaked and braised so they absorb the taste of the braising liquid. The black-eyed pea and split mung beans need to be soaked for few hours and sauted with garlic, salt & pepper. As for the glutinous rice, it has to be soaked for at least 4 hours or overnight, then seasoned with five spice powder, sugar, salt, ground white pepper, light soy sauce and dark soy sauce. The best part about making ZongZi is you can customise the fillings according to your own preference. Some people may prepare more beans and go with the basics, some may want to add abalones and dried scallops for a luxurious treat.
Soak and wash the bamboo leaves: People usually get the dried bamboo leaves (which are available in most of the Chinese grocery shops) and they need to be washed and soaked a day before. Once done, you need to keep them soaked in water until they are used in order to keep them pliable for wrapping. Some people boil the bamboo leaves with a bit of oil so the leaves are shinny and the rice doesn't stick to the leaves when unwrapping.
Assemble and wrap: This is probably the hardest part, especially for first-timer. All you need is to watch some YouTube videos on how to wrap, choose your style and the tip here is "practice, practice and practice". With each practice comes improvement, which ultimately leads to perfection! You can also get one of the plastic or wooden sticky rice dumpling moulds from Shopee or Lazada if you feel more at ease. There are quite a few options out there now.
Cook in boiling water: Once the dumplings are nicely wrapped (remember not to wrap them too tightly as the rice needs some room to expand during the cooking process), you can place them in a pot, in a way that they are snuggling together without room to move around, then pour in boiling water carefully. The rice dumplings have to be fully submerged in the water. The boiling usually take 2.5 to 3 hours. If you have a pressure cooker, it will only take 30 minutes per batch.
Although the process of making these ZongZi can be laborious, it will be worthwhile to make them and they make a good gifts for friends and families as a labour of LOVE! Wishing everyone a Happy Dragon Boat Festival!