The story behind rice dumplings, and a recipe

Dumplings can be sweet or savoury, depending on regional differences in cuisine. PHOTO: ST FILE
Dumplings can be sweet or savoury, depending on regional differences in cuisine. PHOTO: ST FILE

 (CHINA DAILY/ANN) - Tasty rice dumplings with local variations in fillings have been a tradition of China's Dragon Boat Festival for centuries, the China Daily team reports.

You do not have to live in China long to know that the country's most popular foods usually have a good story behind them. That's particularly true of festival foods such as zongzi, the pyramid-shaped steamed glutinous rice packages in bamboo or reed leaves that have been associated with the Dragon Boat Festival for more than a millennium.

History and lore describe Qu Yuan variously as a poet, a patriot and an imperial adviser who lived during the turbulent Warring States Period (475-221 BC). When a rival kingdom occupied his home, the kingdom of Chu, Qu is said to have thrown himself into a river.

Local folks were unable to find his body in the water, so they dropped rice balls into the river to stop fish from eating his corpse.

Enter the dragon: A fisherman claimed Qu came to him in a dream, telling him that dragons had been eating most of the rice balls. After that, on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month (the day Qu died), people would wrap the rice balls with chinaberry leaves and tie them up with coloured threads before throwing them into the river to commemorate Qu's death.

That is the legend. But in fact, Echo Zhao writes in The World Of Chinese: "Zongzi existed long before Qu Yuan did. Five hundred thousand years ago, our ancestors were already wrapping food in leaves, and roasting it in the fire. By the time of the Warring States, it had become a customary version of fast food, especially for farmers, who were too busy in the fields to head home for a meal."

Zongzi, rice dumplings wrapped in leaves, remain with us today as the traditional way to celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival. They have been called everything from "Chinese tamales" to "tenderly wrapped packages of pure love".

  • SAVOURY RICE DUMPLINGS

  • INGREDIENTS

    2 kg glutinous rice, washed and soaked

    500 g belly pork, cut into chunks

    100 g pork fat, cubed

    300 g dried chestnuts, soaked

    50 g dried prawns, soaked

    50 g dried Chinese mushrooms, soaked and sliced

    2 whole bulbs garlic, skinned and chopped

    2 bundles 10 cm wide bamboo leaves, plus raffia/reeds to tie

    15 salted egg yolks (optional), halved

    Soy sauce, five-spice powder, salt and pepper to taste

  • METHOD

    1. Soak and clean bamboo leaves. Trim off hard stems and tips. Soak the dried raffia so they become pliable. Gather into bunches of 10 strings and tie one end with a large knot.

    2. Marinate belly pork with good quality soy sauce and five-spice powder, salt and pepper.

    3. Divide pork fat cubes into two portions. Marinate half with five-spice powder. Place the other half into a medium-hot pan, and start rendering the fat. When you have about two tablespoons oil, add the chopped garlic and stir fry till garlic turns golden. Drain garlic. Set aside.

    4. In remaining oil, fry the mushrooms till fragrant. Set aside. Add belly pork and fry in oil with a little garlic added. Add more soy sauce. Drain belly pork pieces and set aside.

    5. Keep pan juices. Add more garlic into pan. Add the rice and stir well so that the grains are lightly colored with soy sauce and flavored with garlic. Remove from heat and place the rice in a big pot.

    WRAPPING THE DUMPLINGS

    1. Make a fold halfway in the bamboo leaf, and bring the two halves together so a cone is created.

    2. Hold the leaf by its two edges, add one tablespoon of rice. Add chestnut, mushroom, belly pork, salted egg yolk if using, some dried prawns and a piece of five-spice marinated pork fat. Cover filling with more rice.

    3. Cupping the bamboo leaf and shaping it between thumb and forefinger, use your other hand to fold the leaf over the top, pressing down. This is the base of the pyramid.

    4. Flip the cone over, and wrap the ends of the leaf around and about the rice cone.

    5. Holding the completed cone firmly in one hand, use a raffia string and wrap around the sides, tying it with a "fisherman's knot".

    6. When you have completed bunches of 10, suspend the dumpling with a long handled wooden spoon over a large pot of boiling water for three to four hours. The dumplings must have enough room to move around in the water so do not try to cram too many in. Remember to top up with boiling water if the level falls low. It must cover dumplings completely. (Larger dumplings need longer cooking time.)

    7. When dumplings are cooked, hang them up to dry off completely before storing them.

  • Yield: About 30 dumplings

In general, northern Chinese prefer sweet versions of these steamed treats, while southerners like them savoury.

It is not quite that simple, though: In Beijing, it is usual to stuff the glutinous white or purple rice packages with candied or dried jujube, the Chinese red date. Some zongzi are left plain, to be dipped into sugar.

Get south of the Yangtze River, however, and creative locals over centuries have added salted egg yolk, ham, braised pork, chestnuts, fragrant mushroom or barbecued pork instead of (or in addition to) "traditional" red-bean paste or Chinese dates.

Shapes can vary, too, from cones to simple triangles to Pythagorean pyramids with perfect corners. The last require considerable skill in making and tying so that they retain their shapes in the steamers. (If you try this at home and they disintegrate, they should still be delicious.)

Tips for making zongzi

Soak the bamboo leaves in hot water and wipe each one with a damp cloth.

Season the meats generously with good-quality soy sauce. The long cooking process leaches the salt and dilutes the flavours.

After the dumplings are boiled for the requisite time, hang them up to drip-dry. They must be completely dry before you store them away.

Relax, have fun, do not worry. It is all edible, even if they do not look too good. Wrapping the dumplings just demands practice.

Gift boxes

Top restaurants and hotels around China offer beautifully packaged gift boxes with a variety of zongzi. At Conrad Beijing, for example, you can get a package with eight stuffed dumplings (two each with fillings of osmanthus and red bean paste, oats and red bean, matcha and red bean, and Sichuan smoked pork) plus six salty eggs for 238 yuan ($$47.93) plus 15 per cent service charge.
Lu Yu in Conrad Beijing, 29 East Third Ring North Road, Chaoyang district. 010-6584-6290/6291