Makin’ Zongzi

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To get the recipe, we visited Chef Zhang Cuiping in her courtyard hotel, Han’s Royal Garden Hotel, hidden in the hutongs of Beijing. She doesn’t talk much, but she looks familiar, just like my Auntie. And starting with the familiar is the right way to make this ordinary, yet sacred, food. I imagine housewives just like her, silently making zongzis 2,000 years ago, just to throw into a river to save a noble poet’s body from the jaws of the water demons.

Chef Zhang explained that although zongzi appear in different shapes, according to different customs across the country, they’re usually triangles or rectangles. Either bamboo leaves or reed leaves can be used, although in Guangdong, dried lotus leaves are used. The fresher, the better. If the leaves are not vacuum packed, make sure to boil them first and then soak them for three or four hours before using. As I mentioned above, the southern style usually incorporates salty meat fillings, while the Northerners prefers their zongzi to be sweet—some even dip their zongzi in sugar.

Chef Zhang was too shy to give me more stories behind the recipe—and instead begged her boss, Master Wang Xifu, to explain it to me. Wang, a man in his 70s, comes from a long line of cooks; his father was a chef for the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty. He told me that, for Dragon Boat Festival, old Beijingers used to cover raw rice with colorful cloth, and hang these fake zongzi on their doors for happiness and luck. They’d drink yellow wine mixed with arsenic, to ward off the onslaught of insects that also appear in the hot fifth month. They’d also eat Five Venom Pancakes (五毒饼 wǔdúbǐng), another celebratory food, carved with the shapes of snakes, scorpions, toads, centipedes and geckos, also thought to keep insects away.

To make eating zongzi more of a ritual, and to show your respect to Qu Yuan, be sure to share them with friends, and drink tea alongside. Green tea is the best accompaniment for sweet zongzi, but for greasy zongzi, try Pu’er or Chrysanthemum. For salty sweet zongzi, Wulong tea is the best.

Of course, the best way to eat zongzi is to make them yourself, perhaps while meditating on Qu Yuan’s best-known poem.

Lù mànmàn qí xiū yuǎnxī,??路漫漫其修远兮,

Wú jiāng shàngxià ér qiúsuǒ?.吾将上下而求索。

The road ahead is far and long,?but I will seek the truth up and down.

Mmmm… I think I will do that?this year.

Ingredients (for five zongzis):

  • 5 fresh bamboo (竹叶 zhúyè) or reed leaves (苇叶 wěiyè)
  • 5 pieces of pratia grass (马莲草 mǎliáncǎo), or sewing thread
  • 300g sticky rice (糯米nuòmǐ)
  • 10 jujubes ( zǎo)

Instructions:

  1. Clean the leaves and grass. If the leaves are dried, soak them in water for two hours, then wash them. Soak the sticky rice for three hours.
  2. Fold the leaves into a funnel, as in the photos. Make sure to leave the open side long enough to cover the top completely, and to keep the bottom gap-free.
  3. Place one jujube into the funnel, then add rice until the funnel is full. Place another jujube on the rice.
  4. Fold the open side down, to cover the top of the funnel, as shown in the photos.
  5. Lower the two edges and roll the longer leaf left outside along the funnel.
  6. Take an edge of the grass with your third finger, and wrap it around the funnel two or three times. Tie it into a slip knot.
  7. Place the zongzi in boiling water, and boil for three hours.
For the myths behind the Dragon Boat Festival itself, look over here. 

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