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Beijing, China — Duānwǔ jié (端午节) or Duānyáng jié (端阳节) is celebrated on the 5th day of the 5th month of the lunar calendar. This is one of the most important Chinese traditional festivals of over 2,000 years. Many traditional customs for this holiday have disappeared, but two customs that have survived the test of time are eating zòngzi (粽子) and dragon boat racing. Duānwǔ jié in English is known as ‘dragon boat festival‘.
There are many mysterious and beautiful legends known amongst folk people in China regarding Duānwǔ jié. The most popular is about Qū Yuán (屈原), the first great patriotic poet from the late Warring States period (770 BC-221 BC). It was on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month that he committed suicide by drowning himself in Miluo River in today’s Hunan province, protesting against political corruption. Villagers rowed their boats into the vast Miluo river searching for his body to no avail. In order to keep fish from eating his body the people went home and returned with rice dumplings to throw into the river. Thereafter, every 5th day of the 5th lunar month, people wrap glutinous rice with bamboo or reeds to commemorate him.
This year, we decided to make zòngzi ourselves. Neither of us had ever made zòngzi before. How hard could it be? We watched a few videos on Youku and thought ‘We have this!’ We headed to my local market, Donglian Xing, for ingredients.
Zòngzi is relatively easy to make. All you need are lúwěi (芦苇, reed leaves), chāngpú (菖蒲, iris leaves), and nuòmǐ (糯米, glutinous rice). Bamboo leaves are also used, but in our market, we opted for what the locals were buying and bought lúwěi leaves. I had a few là cháng (腊肠, Chinese sausage made just before spring festival) Juling made with her husband. To start, I washed the nuòmǐ. Juling washed the lúwěi and chāngpú leaves and boiled them for ten minutes. After boiling, we left the leaves to soak for 30 minutes.
How hard could it be?
We each tried to wrap the zòngzi from instruction videos found on Youku. Make a cone with the leaves, drop a spoon of rice into the cone, then a few pieces of sausage. Lastly, top with a little more rice and wrap. It wasn’t as easy as it looked. We kept ending up with flat triangles. None were uniform in size. We struggled with the lúwěi leaves as they split from over-handling. Luckily, my āyí (homehelper) arrived and we asked her to show us how. While we each managed several zòngzi, āyí wrapped 20!
Into a pot of water and boiled for 45 minutes then cooled. Beyond the challenges of wrapping a ‘beautiful’ zòngzi, even cooking them was easy.
Our misfit zòngzi
Āyí’s beautiful zòngzi
Āyí advised storing the cooked zòngzi in the freezer to re-boil or steam for 15 minutes when desired. We’re ready to celebrate Dragon Boat festival, authentically this year… thanks to āyí.
After thought: Next time I make zòngzi, I’ll use the instructional video from Globetrotter Diaries. It’s in English and she uses two large bamboo leaves. Next time, I plan on buying bamboo leaves.