Zongzi (Rice Dumplings)

Dragon Boat Festival occurs on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunisolar Chinese Calendar. This year, the date fell on June 12. It’s not known for sure exactly when the holiday began, but the general consensus is around 278 BC.

I didn’t take part in the Dragon Boat racing, but I did take part in another cultural aspect of the holiday: making and eating zongzi.

Zongzi, also known as rice dumplings, are made of glutinous rice stuffed with an array of fillings, and then wrapped in bamboo leaves. They are then cooked by steaming or boiling for 2 hours (we boiled ours as is traditional in southern Taiwan, whereas steaming is traditional to northern Taiwan).

The mother of one of my students invited Dom and I over to her grandmother’s house for a zongzi feast. I happily accepted the invitation, and then asked what time we should come over. I was surprised to hear her say 10 AM.

When we arrived at her grandmother’s house at 10, I realized why they wanted us there so early; we were going to help make the zongzi. And seeing as it’s an intricate process (an art, to be more precise), we needed plenty of time to ensure they would be ready by lunch.

The Zongzi creation station

The zongzi creation station

My first Zongzi

My first zongzi

While making the zongzi, my student’s great-grandmother shared with us its importance. In China, a woman used to have to pass a zongzi test before she was allowed to marry.  I asked my student’s mother if she could make zongzi, and she laughed; no, she buys it at the store. Sadly, her mother can’t even make it, so I guess the tradition is a dying one.

Zongzi supposedly originated with the suicide of poet Qu Yuan in 278 BC (the man the festival commemorates). According to legend, the local people dropped zongzi in the river to feed the fish, so as to prevent them from eating his body. It is also said that people paddled out on boats to scare away the fish, which is said to be the origin of the dragon boat racing.

Making zongzi is incredibly tedious and requires a finesse that I apparently don’t have. The old lady making the zongzi – let’s call her the “Zongzi Master” – made it look very easy; but then again she has been doing it for at least 50 years. We were instructed to take two bamboo leaves each, and to fold them in the precise way as shown. But every attempt ended in the same way: her taking them out of our hands and refolding them.

Once we were handed back the correctly folded bamboo leaves – they made a cone-like shape – we then stuffed them with boiled peanuts, sticky rice, duck egg yolk, boiled lotus seeds, and a concoction of roasted pork, squid, mushrooms, and shrimp, mixed in a type of soy sauce. We had to then pack the contents in tightly with a spoon, and fold the bamboo into a triangle (easier said than done). When we thought we were finished, we handed it to the Zongzi Master for inspection, and held our breath hoping it would pass.

Most of them didn’t. The majority of our zongzis were opened, and the contents emptied back into the bowls. Mine was the only one that passed inspection, but in all fairness, she helped me with most of it.

By the end of the cooking lesson, she evidently saw the frustration in our eyes, because in Chinese she said “We are all born to do something”.

Ladies and gentlemen, your words of Zen from the Zongzi Master.

The finished product

The finished product


  1. Great blog! Zongzi are sooo hard to make!

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