Last week’s Tuen Ng festival is most often associated with patriotic poet Qu Yuan, who drowned himself in either 278BC or 290BC. However, its roots probably lie in an ancient agrarian festival associated with dragon worship and the summer harvest.
For many people, the most familiar features of Tuen Ng (Duanwu in Putonghua) are dragon boats and zongzi, parcels of steamed glutinous rice stuffed with various fillings and wrapped in bamboo leaves. Zongzi come in shapes and sizes that vary from region to region. Some in Hong Kong are as big as a brick and filled with expensive dried seafood such as conpoy and abalone.
Zongzi are not my favourite food – I consider them heartburn in leaves – but there’s one variety I absolutely love, and that’s the Peranakan-style zongzi found only in Singapore and Malaysia.
Created by the Chinese Peranakans, a people of mixed Chinese and Malay heritage, descended from the earliest Chinese settlers in Southeast Asia, these zongzi are distinguished by the use of candied winter melon in the pork filling, for a flavour that is at once sweet and savoury. But what truly distinguishes these from their Chinese parent is the use of both pandan and bamboo leaves to wrap the sticky rice before steaming, which gives the rice a light, sweet fragrance that reminds me of home.