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Zongzi (or simply zong) (Chinese: 粽子) is a traditional Chinese food, made of glutinous rice stuffed with different fillings and wrapped in bamboo, reed, or other large flat leaves. They are cooked by steaming or boiling. In the Western world, they are also known as rice dumplings or sticky rice dumplings.
Laotians, Thais, (who call them Bachang) and Cambodians (who call them nom chang) have also assimilated this dish by borrowing it from the local overseas Chinese minorities in their respective nations. In Indonesia and Malaysia, they are known as bakcang, bacang, or zang (Chinese: 肉粽; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: bah-chàng), a loanword from Hokkien, a Chinese dialect commonly used among Indonesian-Chinese, rather than Mandarin. Along the same lines, zongzi are more popularly known as machang among Chinese Filipinos in the Philippines.
Making (and eating) zongzi
Zongzi (sticky rice dumplings) are traditionally eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival (Mandarin: Duānwǔ; Cantonese: Tuen Ng), which falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar (approximately late-May to mid-June), commemorating the death of Qu Yuan, a famous Chinese poet from the kingdom of Chu who lived during the Warring States period.
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 penning 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.
The shape of zongzi range from being approximately tetrahedral in southern China to cylindrical in northern China. Wrapping a zongzi neatly is a skill that is passed down through families, as are the recipes. Making zongzi is traditionally a family event of which everyone helps out.
While traditional zongzi are wrapped in bamboo leaves, the leaves of lotus, maize, banana, canna, shell ginger and pandan leaves sometimes are used as substitutes in other countries. Each kind of leaf imparts its own unique smell and flavor to the rice.
The fillings used for zongzi vary from region to region, but the rice used is always glutinous rice (also called "sticky rice" or "sweet rice"). Depending on the region, the rice may be lightly precooked by stir-frying or soaked in water before using. In the north, fillings would mostly be azuki bean paste and tapioca or taro. Northern style zongzi tend to be sweet and dessert like. Southern-style zongzi however tend to be more savory. Fillings of Southern-style zongzi would be salted duck egg, pork belly, taro, shredded pork or chicken, Chinese sausage, pork fat, and shiitake mushrooms.
Southern-style (left) and Northern-style (right) zongzi
Zongzi need to be steamed or boiled for several hours depending on how the rice is made prior to being added, along with the fillings. However, as the modes of zongzi styles have traveled and become mixed, today one can find all kinds of zongzi at traditional markets, and their types are not confined to which side of the Yellow River they originated from.
Jianshui zongzi without fillings
- "Jiaxing zongzi" (嘉兴粽子): It is one famous kind of zongzi in mainland China named after the city Jiaxing. The filling is typically pork but also can be Mung beans, Red beans or Salted duck eggs.
- Jia zong (假粽): Instead of glutinous rice, balls of glutinous rice flour (so no individual grains of rice are discernible) are used to "contain" the fillings of the zongzi. These zongzi are typically smaller than most, and are much stickier.
- Jianshui zong (碱水粽): Meaning "alkaline water zong," these are typically eaten as a dessert item rather than as part of the main meal. The glutinous rice is treated with lye water (aqueous sodium hydroxide), or potassium carbonate, giving them their distinctive yellow color. Jianshui zong typically contain either no filling or are filled with a sweet mixture, such as sweet bean paste. Sometimes, a certain red wood sliver (shu mok) is inserted for color and flavor. They are often eaten with sugar or light syrup.
- Nyonya zong (娘惹粽): A specialty of Peranakan cuisine, these zongzi are made similarly as southern zongzi. However, the filling is typically minced pork with candied winter melon, ground roasted peanuts and a spice mix.
- Taiwan zongzi (臺灣粽): The northern Taiwanese zongzi (北部粽) are wrapped with husks of "Phyllostachys makinoi" bamboo (桂竹籜), then steamed; southern Taiwanese zongzi (南部粽) are wrapped with leaves of Bambusa oldhamii (麻竹葉), then boiled.
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