Remembering the poetic origins of glutinous rice dumplings

Susan Jung

Zongzi (glutinous rice dumplings) is something most people associate with Tuen Ng, also known as the Dragon Boat Festival, which took place yesterday. I'm sure most of you know the tale of Qu Yuan, a diplomat and poet beloved by the people. After Qu committed suicide by drowning, the grieving populous rowed their boats out onto the river and threw balls of rice into the water so the fish would have something to eat other than the poet's body - which is why the zongzi (also called joong) are eaten during the festival.

Rice dumplings are wonderfully varied: their shape depends on the maker; they can be sweet or savoury; and, as well as rice, they can contain cooked meat, cured sausages, salted eggs, dried seafood and dried beans or legumes. They're usually wrapped in bamboo leaves.

I used to think that a good zongzi was one that contained a lot of ingredients, but in Taiwan, I tasted a rather austere version. It was made mostly of rice, along with some dried yellow mung beans and one piece of fatty pork. The rice had great flavour, and it wasn't as heavy as that in many Cantonese versions.

Some places (usually hotels) make very fancy zongzi filled with expensive ingredients such as dried abalone, porcini mushrooms, aged mandarin peel and bird's nest.