A classic treat for Dragon boat festival. With this informative recipe you will make sweet and savoury Zongzi (Chinese sticky rice dumplings) with great ease.
Zongzi (粽子, Chinese sticky rice dumpling) is a traditional food for celebrating Duanwu festival (端午节, aka Dragon boat festival in the West) which is on the 5th of May according to the Chinese lunar calendar. This year it falls on the 30th of May on a regular calendar. Dragon boat racing isn’t a tradition in the North-west of China where I grew up. But Zongzi is definitely an indispensable delicacy that makes this festival very attractive and special.
Zongzi is basically glutinous rice with sweet or savoury fillings wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves. After being cooked in water, all the ingredients stick together and stay in a particular shape when unwrapped. It’s a sticky, aromatic and flavoursome treat that involves some very specific preparation but it’s worth every bit of effort.
A personal memory
I felt extremely homesick when I was preparing and shooting Zongzi for this post. The strong aroma that lingered in my kitchen for hours brought me back to those good old days. Thanks to my mum and dad who always involved me in the kitchen, I had many sweet childhood memories about Zongzi.
I remember on those early summer days right before Duanwu festival, my mum would ask me and my brother to collect Ma Lian (马莲, a type of long, tough grass used to tie the Zongzi instead of strings) in the nearby field. We were then given the opportunity to wrap the Zongzi. It was very tricky for young children and most of the time we ended up with broken leaves and spilt rice. But my parents always acknowledged our effort and encouraged us to try again and again. We often didn’t have that patience to stay right to the end of the preparation, but we got our hands wet and had lots of fun. I remember how much I loved the aroma coming from the pot in which the Zongzi was boiled. It was so nice and memorable! I also remember how comforting it was to have a cold Zongzi as a snack after a tiring day in school.
There is a large variety of Zongzi across China. They differ in size, shape and filling. Growing up with sweet Zongzi stuffed with red beans and/or Chinese dates, I encountered culture shock the first time I heard of savoury ones. Having meat as the main filling is very popular in southern regions of China such as Shanghai, Canton, etc. You may also find them filled with salted egg yolks, chestnuts, dried shrimp, etc. Obviously sweet and savoury Zongzi are very different in taste, but I think they are equally delicious! That’s why I’d like to introduce both versions in this post.
Red beans (aka adzuki beans) are widely used in Northern-style sweet Zongzi. In my recipe I put red bean paste (see how to make it at home here) in the middle (a sweet surprise when cut open) then sprinkle whole red beans on top of the rice (a nice look and bite on the surface). I also like putting a Chinese date in each Zongzi to add a different sweet taste. In fact, you can be flexible and creative with the filling. For example, mung beans and dry fruits work well too. Just remember to soak hard ingredients like beans overnight beforehand.
In this post, I wrap sweet Zongzi into a triangle shape: it has four corners and four triangle sides. You need a minimum amount of bamboo leaves to make this shape: one wide leaf or two overlapped narrow ones for each Zongzi. It’s ideal for small-sized Zongzi. Usually, sweet Zongzi are served with either honey or sugar. It’s delicious both warm and cold.
To be honest, this is the first time I made savoury Zongzi. The shop-bought ones I had previously in China didn’t impress me. Recently my high school friend Haijiang encouraged me to give it a try. “Homemade ones are totally different,” she said. Then she kindly asked her mum for the recipe. It’s a simple version that only requires two fillings: marinated pork belly and shiitake mushrooms. After my first attempt, I finally understand why southern Chinese fancy savoury Zongzi. They are simply divine! The flavour from the pork marinade penetrate into each grain of rice. The meat is so tender that it almost melts in your mouth.
I tried a different shape for the savoury ones. You need four bamboo leaves to wrap everything into a five-corner, pyramid shape. It’s bigger than the triangle ones and I find it easier to wrap. If you are new to this experience, I recommend that you start with pyramid shape (no matter sweet or savoury). I prefer serving meaty Zongzi warm, as breakfast, snack or staple of a meal.
How to make Zongzi?
- Prepare the ingredients: This means to soak the hard-to-cook ingredients in water beforehand, and to marinate the meat if you are making savoury ones. I use dried bamboo leaves (widely available in Chinese/Asian shops) that need to be soaked too. They should be pliable when wrapping.
- Assemble and wrap: This is probably the most intimidating part. Actually it’s not that hard at all (please see my detailed instructions below). I think the key point is to be patient. Take your time and do not rush.
- Cook: They need to be boiled in water for about 2.5 hours. You should place a heavy plate on top of the Zongzi to stop them floating (my mum used to put a flat stone instead). Don’t forget to check the water level from time to time. Top up to ensure the Zongzi are always under water.
- An extra tip: My mum used to boil some eggs with the Zongzi. The aroma from bamboo leaves make them super tasty. It’s a bonus!
Wrapping with ease
- Triangle shape: Use one wide bamboo leaf (or two overlapped narrow ones) to form a narrow cone. Place some glutinous rice in, then the filling. Top with more rice and make it level. Fold the two sides of the leaf over the rice. Then fold the top of the leaf down to cover the rice completely. Wrap the rest of the leaf around the shape. Tie with a cooking string.
- Pyramid shape: Overlap two leaves like an X. Form a wide cone in the middle. Place some glutinous rice in, then the filling. Top with more rice and make it level. Fold two ends of the leaves towards the middle. Then use another two leaves to seal two sides. Tie with a cooking string (opposite direction of the last two leaves).
I had great pleasure making these Zongzi and writing this post. This experience reminds me of where I come from and what is important in life. I’d love to take this opportunity to say THANK YOU to my wonderful parents who filled my childhood with happy memories through food. Another THANK YOU to my friend Haijiang and her mum for sharing their family recipe of the savoury version.
Wish you all a very happy Dragon boat festival!