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Serendipity in Travel: Building a Dragon Boat

What I love about Guizhou just as much as its jade rivers, green mountains and beautiful people is the serendipity of the place. Surprising things seem to happen in Guizhou constantly, and if you travel through it for an hour, or better still, a day, you’ll be certain to happen across something extraordinary just by chance.

When travelling I try to stay open to the possibility of a random encounter, even if it means changing my schedule, or missing something else.

I live by one travel rule: When the travel gods throw a crumb in your path, you need to pick it up and follow the trail. Don’t step over the crumb. Don’t ignore it.

These serendipitous experiences have formed some of my richest travel memories, like the time we met Chinese National Geographic photographer Big Mountain (his real name) and accompanied him to a Miao village ancestor’s feast; or the time we visited cave-dwelling paper-makers, and the time I was invited to an impromptu house-warming feast for four hundred people.

So on my visit to Guizhou last month we drove past a group of men huddled by the banks of a green, green river, on our way to Shidong Market.

“I think they’re maybe building a dragon boat there…” said Billy, our guide. “Want to have a look?” Continue reading “Serendipity in Travel: Building a Dragon Boat”

Shanghai Street Food #29 Zongzi 粽子 Sticky Rice Wrapped in Bamboo Leaf

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 1   Roast Sweet Potatoes
Number 2   Snack-on-a-stick 
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 8   Dan Gao – street cakes
Number 9   Shao mai – sticky rice treats
Number 10  Summer on a Stick – fresh fruits

Number 11  You Tiao – deep-fried breadsticks
Number 12  Dan Juan – egg rolls
Number 13  Shao Kao – street barbecue
Number 14  Bao Mi Hua – exploding rice flowers
Number 15  Chou Doufu – stinky tofu
Number 16  Bing Tang Shan Zha – crystal sugar hawthorns
Number 17  Mutton Polo
Number 18  Yumi Bang – puffed corn sticks
Number 19  Mian Hua Tang – cotton candy
Number 20  You Dunzi – fried radish cakes

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 24  Guotie – potsticker dumplings
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
Number 30  Shengjianbao – pan-fried dumplings

Number 31  Mala Tang – DIY spicy soup

A Zongzi Recipe for Dragon Boat Festival

Happy Dragon Boat Festival! Did you know it was the Dragon Boat Festival (Duānwǔ Jié 节) today? Here in China we’re having a long weekend thanks to the exploits of long-dead poet and statesman Qu Yuan. After spending years in exile accused of treason, Qu Yuan committed suicide by drowning himself in the river, leaving behind beautiful poetry and devastated loyal supporters. Each year on the anniversary of his death, his supporters would throw offerings of rice into the river as a tribute, and to stop fish from eating his body. Zòngzi 粽子 or sticky rice parcels, represent these rice offerings and are filled with a sweet filling (red bean, jujube, favoured in northern China) or savoury filling (pork, mushroom, preferred in southern China) and wrapped in bamboo leaves.

I learned how to make zongzi yesterday, under the watchful eye of Chef Gao at the Chinese Cooking Workshop. They’ve just upgraded from their old opium den on Weihai Lu and moved into a lovely light-filled kitchen on Dongping Lu, not far from my house. Never mind that they don’t usually offer classes in making zongzi, Chef Gao knows how to make everything so I just called them up, rounded up a few friends, and we all spent the afternoon making zongzi. Lovely!
Zongzi – Sticky Rice and Pork Parcels
  • 20 large dried bamboo leaves
  • 400g fatty pork, cubed
  • 1/4 cup plus 1/4 cup dark soy sauce (dark soy is for colour, and unsalted – do not substitute normal or light soy)
  • 1/4 cup shaoxing rice wine
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2.5cm piece of ginger, peeled and sliced
  • 2 spring onions, sliced
  • 250g uncooked sticky rice


  • In a bowl mix together 1/4 cup dark soy sauce, shaoxing wine, sugar, salt, ginger and spring onions
  • Add pork pieces and allow to marinade for up to 24 hours, minimum 2 hours
  • Add remaining 1/4 cup dark soy sauce to sticky rice and mix well until grains are well coated
  • Bring a large pot of water to the boil, immerse bamboo leaves and boil for three minutes until leaves become soft. Drain.
  • Take a bamboo leaf and hold it with the spine facing up
  • Fold the leaf as shown, approximately one third of the way along its length
  • Fold again, this time lengthways as shown, open out the base of the folds to form a cup
  • Fill with 1-2 spoonfuls of coated sticky rice, a piece of marinated pork, then another 1-2 spoonfuls of rice
  • Holding the filled portion in the cup of your hand, fold the long part of the leaf over the top
  • Tuck in both sides of the parcel, then pinch the overhanging leaf together and fold sideways as shown
  • Holding parcel firmly, wrap tightly with string and knot to fasten
  • Bring a large pot of water to the boil, add zongzi so they are fully submerged
  • Simmer for two hours (water will darken due to dark soy sauce), then drain
  • While still hot snip string wth scissors and unwrap
  • Enjoy!
  • (can be frozen, uncooked, for up to one month)

Shanghai’s best location for learning to cook Chinese food:
Chinese Cooking Workshop
2 Dongping Lu, near Hengshan Lu