Every season brings a special street food of its own to Shanghai, like the bing tang shan zha of mid-winter, the ruby red skin of those tiny round hawthorns peeking through a crunchy layer of crystal sugar. Mid-summer for me means the arrival of zòngzi 粽子, parcels of sticky rice wrapped in bright green bamboo leaves.
Zongzi are eaten year round, but if you walk through Shanghai’s streets and markets right now you’ll see enormous shallow dishes of the green pyramid-shaped pockets everywhere and people sitting outside in the warm June weather on tiny wooden stools making them, because June is the month of the annual Dragon Boat Festival (June 23 in 2012), and zongzi are the special food for this particular festival.
Like all festive foods, zongzi have a great story behind them. Let me tell it to you.
Long, long ago there lived a Chinese poet Qu Yuan (340-278 BC), who was also a loyal confidante and minister of the King of Chu. Qu Yuan was wrongly accused of treachery and spent twenty miserable and melancholic years in exile, lamenting the fate of his beloved country and writing exquisite poetry.
Swift jade-green dragons, birds with plumage gold,
I harnessed to the whirlwind, and behold,
At daybreak from the land of plane-trees grey,
I came to paradise ere close of day.
from The Lament by Qu Yuan
Increasingly unhappy, Qu Yuan committed suicide by drowning himself in the river and his devastated supporters searched the waters in vain for his body, throwing small parcels of rice into the water to prevent the fish, serpents and underworld dragons from taking it. Each year on the anniversary of his death people continued to throw offerings of rice into the river as a tribute, and zongzi 粽子 came to represent these offerings.
Making zongzi is considered an important skill because that dry sticky rice, coated with a little dark soy sauce, is the last thing you think could be neatly wrapped up in a leaf. It’s like trying to tie a pocket of sand in a folded petal. A high degree of manual dexterity coupled with many years of practice is needed to make sure that tightly tied cone of rice doesn’t fall apart during the two hours of cooking time.
If you’d like a recipe and full instructions you can find them here
Cooked zongzi for sale, to reheat at home – different coloured strings for different flavours.
The fillings for zongzi, along with the sticky rice, range from savoury juicy pieces of marinated fatty pork (xiān ròu zòng), to egg yolk (dànhuáng zòng) or sweet fillings such as redbean and jujube (chìdòu mìzǎo zongzi).
Everyone has a favourite kind!
Once opened the bamboo leaf peels back to reveal a steaming parcel of soft sticky rice, flavoured by both the bamboo leaf and the filling. Tasty! Zongzi can be bought for 2-5 yuan (30-75 cents) each, depending on the filling and the size.
More Street Foods Here:
Number 3 Liangpi – a spicy cold noodle dish
Number 4 Langzhou Lamian – hand-pulled noodles
Number 5 Cong You Bing – fried shallot pancakes
Number 6 Baozi – steamed buns, Shanghai style
Number 7 Jian Bing – the famous egg pancake
Number 14 Bao Mi Hua – exploding rice flowers
Number 16 Bing Tang Shan Zha – crystal sugar hawthorns
Number 21 Suzhou Shi Yue Bing – homestyle mooncakes
Number 22 Gui Hua Lian’ou – honeyed lotus root stuffed with sticky rice
Number 23 Cong You Ban Mian – scallion oil noodles
Number 25 Nuomi Cai Tou – fried clover pancakes
Number 26 Da Bing, Shao Bing – sesame breakfast pastries
Number 27 Ci Fan – sticky rice breakfast balls
Number 28 Gui Hua Gao – steamed osmanthus cake
Number 29 Zongzi – bamboo leaf wrapped sticky rice