Thursday, June 5, 2014

Dragon Boat Festival

These Zòngzi Are the Bombzi!!

It's Dragon Boat Festival here in China which means a few days of testing your willpower against these delicious calorie bombs that are called zòngzi. Made by wrapping reed leafs around glutinous rice which surrounds a variety of sweet or savory fillings, they are then boiled or steamed until the rice is fully cooked. A brilliant invention because the flavor combo possibilities really are endless! Although here in Hubei, the most popular fillings were date, roasted pork, peanut, and salted egg yolk. I personally enjoy the roast pork ones best because the pork gives an amazing savory flavor to the rest of the rice and makes the whole thing seem a bit more substantial. The plain rice ones with a date in the middle are tasty too and are typically served topped with sugar. I also sprinkled on some cinnamon, which made it a super decadent, almost rice pudding-tasting dessert. Lindsey and I were given a bunch of uncooked zòngzi by our friend Xu and given that they are about 300-400 calories a pop (man, that sticky rice will getchya!) I ended up cooking and bringing the bulk of them into my office to share with my coworkers. But I did experiment with some different toppings in my own kitchen. They were especially tasty with a stewed fruit topping I made out of cherries and almond extract and then topped with some slivered almonds. 
My first experience with zòngzi really got me thinking on all the crazy directions you could go with this traditional Chinese treat. Here are some of my ideas:
  • tropical delight: mix some shredded coconut in with the glutinous rice and the filling would be pineapple, mango and chia seeds
  • german chocolate: again, shredded coconut in the rice and filling would be chocolate chips and pecans 
  • breakfast combo: mix chives in with the sticky rice, and filling would be bacon and egg and plenty of salt and pepper!
  • fajita: filling would be grilled veggies, pickled jalapenos, black beans, and lots of cumin and chili powder
  • nutty professor: Shredded coconut in the rice and filling is a mixture of almond butter with chunks of that delicious Philippines Brand dried coconut and chopped almonds. 
  • pumpkin pie: filling would be spiced pumpkin chunks, serve zòngzi drizzled with maple syrup and more pumpkin pie spice
Here is a picture of the uncooked zòngzi... all tied up in pretty pyramid-shaped packages :)

This is a pork-filled one from my neighbor cooked and unwrapped. You can see that the seasonings and fillings flavored and colored the rice! I had it with one of the salted duck eggs that they also brought over.

A Brief Background of the Dragon Boat Festival
According to my students, the dragon boat festival is celebrated to honor Qū Yuán, an famousChinese poet. During the Warring States Period, Qū Yuán of the Chu state was a trusted advisor to the king and gave him some advice to help avoid the fall of their state, but the king's ministers didn't agree with this advice so they slandered Qū Yuán to the king, who ended up exiling Qū Yuán. So the king didn't follow Qū's advice and guess what happened? His state's capital was captured by the state of Qin. Qū Yuán was so dismayed to hear about this that he took a rock and waded into the Miluo River, drowning himself.

So what does all this have to do with dragon boats and zòngzi? The legend goes that the people heard what Qū Yuán  did and took boats out to the river to try to save him but they were too late. To keep the evil spirits away from his body, they played drums and threw food into the water to keep the fish and spirits away from his body. 

Later that night, Qū Yuán's spirit came to his friends and told them he killed himself on purpose. Then he asked if they could wrap their rice into pyramid-shaped packages in order to scare away the dragon. 

So there you have it. A tragic story of patriotism and betrayal resulting in a fun festival with cool dragon boat races and delicious food. Thanks Qū Yuán! 

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