It has been a while since I posted a ‘What on earth . . .’ blog introducing a traditional Chinese food. So here is a new one.
In essence, zongzi are pyramids of glutinous rice with various types of fillings, wrapped in bamboo, reed, or other large flat leaves.
Traditional sticky rice dumplings are eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival, which falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar (approximately late-May to mid-June).
According to popular belief, eating zongzi commemorates the death of Qu Yuan, a famous Chinese poet from the state of Chu during the Warring States period (5th century B.C.). Known for his patriotism, Qu Yuan tried unsuccessfully to warn his king and countrymen against the expansionism of their Qin neighbors. When the Qin general Bai Qi took Yingdu, the Chu capital, in 278 BC, Qu Yuan’s grief was so intense that he drowned himself in the Miluo river after writing the Lament for Ying. According to legend, packets of rice were thrown into the river to prevent the fish from eating the poet’s body.
Many Chinese still prepare zongzi at home, but it is more convenient for the modern city dweller to buy them from a professional street vendor.
Zongzi are currently produced by machines, though they still cannot be produced completely automatically. To cope with the enormous demand during the season, zongzi makers simply hire more people to make them, as is shown in this video recorded at Wufangzhai (see below).
Makes 20 zongzi
- 40 large dried bamboo leaves (2 for each zongzi)
- 20 long strings (for binding leaves)
- 1 kg long grain sticky rice
- 2 kg pork belly, sliced into 3 cm cubes
- 10 salted duck’s egg yolks
- 40 small dried shiitake (black) mushrooms
- 20 dried, shelled chestnuts
- 10 spring onions, cut up into 1 cm lengths
- 500 g dried radish
- 100 g very small dried shrimp
- 200 g raw, shelled peanuts (with skins)
- 1/2 cup soy sauce
- 1/4 cup rice wine
- Vegetable oil
- 5 cloves of garlic, roughly crushed
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 1-1/2 teaspoons sugar
- 2 star anise
- 1 teaspoon five spice powder
Preparing the ingredients
- Soak rice in water for three hours, drain.
- Stir-fry pork for a few minutes. Add chestnuts, soy sauce, rice wine, ground pepper, 1 teaspoon of sugar, star anise and five spice powder, bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 1 hour. Remove pork and chestnuts from liquid and set aside.
- Boil peanuts until tender (30 minutes to 1 hour).
- Soak mushrooms until soft. Clean and trim stalks. Cut into 2 or 3 pieces. Stir-fry with a little liquid from pork stew.
- Halve duck egg yolks.
- Chop up dried radish finely and stir-fry with 1/2 teaspoon sugar and garlic.
- Stir-fry spring onions until fragrant.
- Stir-fry shrimp for a few minutes.
- To a large wok or bowl, add rice, peanuts, radish, shrimp, spring onions, a little liquid from the stew mixture and 2 tablespoons of oil. Mix well.
- Soak bamboo leaves in warm water for 5 minutes to tenderise, before washing thoroughly in cold water.
- Wet strings to make them more pliable.
- Take 2 leaves with leaf stem or spine facing out. Overlap them lengthwise in inverse directions (pointed end of one leaf facing the rounded end of the other).
- With both hands hold leaves about 2/3rds of the way along their length. At that point bend them so that they are parallel lengthwise and also overlap. This should produce a leaf pouch that you cup firmly in one hand.
- Add a small amount of rice mixture, compressing with a spoon.
- Add 1 piece each of pork, chestnut, mushroom, duck egg yoke.
- Add more rice until you have nearly a full pouch. Compress firmly with a spoon.
- Fold leaves over the open top of zongzi, then around to side until zongzi is firmly wrapped. Zongzi should be pyramid shaped with sharp edges and pointed ends. Trim off any excess leaf with scissors.
- Tie up zongzi tightly just like shoes laces with a double knot. Normally they are tied to a bunch of zongzi.
- Steam for 1 hour, unwrap and serve.
Traditionally, types of zongzi are divided into savoury and sweet.
- Sweet zongzi flavours include plain zongzi, red bean zongzi, horse bean zongzi, date zongzi, rose zongzi, melon zongzi, red bean and lard zongzi, and date paste and lard zongzi.
- Savoury zongzi flavours include salted pork fat zongzi, sausage zongzi, ham zongzi, dried shrimp zongzi, and diced meat zongzi.
Then there the many regional varieties.
Generally, Guangdong zongzi are large in size and have special shapes. They are either sweet with walnuts, dates, or bean paste as a filling, or savory with ham, egg, meat, or roast chicken as a filling.
Roast pork zongzi and soda zongzi from Xiamen and Quanzhou are famous as two typical types of Fujian zongzi. To make roast pork zongzi, use top-grade glutinous rice and fill with roast pork, mushrooms, dried shrimp, lotus seeds, or braised pork soup. Locals often eat these zongzi with garlic, mustard, red chili sauce, and other condiments. Soda zongzi are made of glutinous rice and soda lye. After steaming for several hours, they are best cooled and refrigerated. When eating soda zongzi, people often add honey and syrup. Bean zongzi, very popular in Quanzhou, have a mixture of beans and glutinous rice as a filling.
Ningbo zongzi, in the shape of a quadrangle, include many varieties, such as soda zongzi, red bean paste zongzi, and date paste zongzi. The most famous are soda zongzi, made of glutinous rice soaked in soda water, then wrapped in yellow reed leaves.
Jiaxing zongzi, in the shape of a triangular pyramid, use fresh meat, red bean paste, or eight treasures (choice ingredients of certain special dishes) as fillings. When wrapping this kind of zongzi, people put a small piece of fatty meat into the glutinous rice.
Sweet tea zongzi use stewed sweet tea to soak the glutinous rice. This type of zongzi have a bright color, a soft taste, and a sweet flavor. Generation after generation of people in the western mountainous area of Zhejiang Province have followed the custom of boiling zongzi with sweet tea, boiling rice with sweet tea, and cooking rice porridge with sweet tea. Even in the famous novel, Dream of Red Mansions (one of the four most famous classical literature works of China), sweet tea zongzi and rice are mentioned several times.
Beijing Zongzi, a representative type of zongzi in north China, are small and rectangular. In the countryside people are accustomed to making zongzi using jujube (date) and sweet bean paste as fillings.
People in Guangxi prepare zongzi in the shape of a big pillow, each one weighing over half a kilogram. People in the Guilin region prefer small, pillow-shaped zongzi. People in northern Guilin make zongzi in the shape of a dog’s head. Also the fillings used differ from one place to another. People around Guilin city often add a little baking soda to the filling to make the zongzi tastier, while people in Quanzhou County (northeast Guilin Prefecture) like to soak the glutinous rice in straw-ash water for additional flavoring.
Shanghai zongzi have a variety of shapes and fillings. Vegetarian zongzi made by Gongdelin Vegetarian Restaurant include mushroom zongzi, broad bean zongzi, and red bean zongzi. Some types of Muslim zongzi are offered by the Muslim restaurant Hongchangxing. Its beef zongzi are the most popular among locals.
Just like the moon cakes, zongzi have been adopted by many hotels and restaurants a prestige products, which innovative fillings and nice gift packaging. Many of Beijing’s five-star hotels offer a mixture of traditional and innovative versions of zongzi. There are traditional red jujube and mashed bean fillings, along with fresh pork and egg yolk, and five-spice beef stuffing. Creative combinations include milk and eggs, and shiitake mushrooms with chestnuts. Rice in the dumplings is supplemented with yellow rice, taro and “eight treasures” (babao, as in babao porridge), referring to a mixture of healthy seeds and fruits. The pictures show two types of such signature zongzi.
Cashing in on the vegetarian trend
Snack maker Bee & Cheery (Baicaowei) entered the zongzi market with zongzi containing plant-based meat in April 2020. This launch fitted in the booming interest in artificial meat at that moment.
The industrial age
Zongzi do not want to lag behind other traditional foods like dumplings, moon cakes or mantou in entering the age of industrial production. A special feature of industrial zongzi is that the state regulations forbid using any additive like preservatives or colorants.
A pioneer producer is Sinian (Zhengzhou, Henan) that has already been reported on in several of my posts (please use the search function of this blog). Sinian has introduced the term ‘national zongzi’ (guozong). This may sound quite pretentious, but so far no one has challenged that designation. Its packaging also carries the phrase ‘Chinese flavour (zhonguo wei)’. As Sinian is not allowed to work with texturisers and artificial flavours, or sweeteners, the company using selecting the best natural ingredients as its main means of innovation.
In spite of the above mentioned regulation, ‘zongzi improvers’ are available in China. The producers are not liberal in revealing the ingredients of their compounds, restricting themselves to generic substances:
Emulsifiers, edible gum, phosphates, modified corn starch
The following table shows an industrial recipe for ‘eight treasure (babao) zongzi.
|Candied green beans||20|
|Candied black beans||20|
|Candied white beans||40|
|Candied red beans||100|
The beans and peas are all candied versions. Interestingly, this recipe is much simpler than the above mentioned DIY recipe. The source of this recipe may have held back some flavouring ingredients, but this may indicate the effect of the improver.
Another innovator is Shurongbang, also located in Zhengzhou. Shurongbang has developed sausage shaped zongzi, packed in metal foil, that can be baked in the same way (and using the same equipment) as hot dog sausages. The main raw material used by this company is sweet potato.
Top 10 Zongzi of 2016
The following table lists the top 10 most popular zongzi of 2019 selected by the industry.
Among these brands, Sanquan and Sinian appear in several posts of this blog (use the Search function of this site) as top producers of frozen snacks. Ganso is mentioned in the post on biscuits and Daoxiangcun in the one on mooncakes.
China’s top producer of snack food Sanquan (Zhengzhou, Henan) has launched a series of zongzi of its own in 2018, adding several novel flavours for this traditional food, including coffee, pineapple, coconut, and grapefruit.
It is interesting to see how traditional Chinese culture is regaining recognition, also in areas where people used to look down on things of the past. High end fashion stores, selling brands like Prada, started in China by positioning themselves as part of a modern, i.e. Western, life style. The Chinese affluent still like to show off their branded clothes and accessories, but are getting proud again of being Chinese. The high-end Niccolo Hotel, in the mountain city of Chongqing has started selling its own fancy zongzi in 2020. Interestingly, Niccolo is translating the product as ‘dumpling’ in English, a term reserved for another traditional Chinese food.
Famous brand looking for robot
Wu Fang Zhai, a time-honored brand of zongzi, is based in Jiaxing of Zhejiang province. Founded in 1921 with a small workshop, the enterprise now produces over 1.8 million zongzi each day at peak times during the Duanwu Festival.
The custom of eating zongzi during the festival in Jiaxing dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). As the technique for making zongzi in Jiaxing gradually developed, zongzi produced here became more popular around the country, especially meat zongzi. The technique for making of Wu Fang Zhai zongzi was placed on the list of national intangible cultural heritage in 2011. While an automated assembly line has replaced much of the manual work, the part of wrapping zongzi is still done by hand. Recently, the company announced that it is looking to spend RMB 10 million to develop robots that can replace humans to make zongzi. The materials for making zongzi are specially chosen from high-quality sources. The rice is from Northeast China’s Heilongjiang province, the leaves wrapped around the zongzi are from high mountains in Jiangxi province, and the meat filling is made of selected pork hindquarters from exclusive pig farms in Henan and Zhejiang provinces.
Likoufu, a subsidiary of the Guangzhou Restaurant Group, has developed an instant type of zongzi. It needs to be stored at -5 to 0 degrees. Consumers can eat it immediately after buying. Chinese consumers will need some time to get used to eating zongzi cold, but in the subtropical climate of Guangzhou, instant zongzi can be perceived as an alternative for
Big business online
Zongzi have also entered the cybershelves of the various online retail platforms. 2018 was a top year in that respect. Tmall has sold 108 mln zongzi during around the 2018 Duanwu Festival. Online business facilitates compiling statistics. Competitor Jingdong reports that meat-flavoured zongzi made up 56% of the zongzi it sold, date-flavoured 23%, bean-flavoured 13% and chestnut-flavoured 6%.
Combine them with other traditional foods
Wufangzhai (Jiaxing, Zhejiang) has launched a zongzi pack in 2018 that contains 10 zongzi and 4 salty duck eggs. I am not sure if this will help sell more zongzi, but at least it is innovative.
Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation.