The Dragon Boat Festival, better known in Chinese as the Duan Wu Festival or Duānwǔ Jié (端午节) falls on June 25, 2020 this year. It’s a three-day holiday in China, and always falls on the 5 day of the 5th month of the lunar calendar. I fondly remember my mother referring to it simply as the “5th month” festival or holiday. Zongzi or Chinese rice dumplings are the number one treat associated with Duan Wu or Dragon Boat festival holiday.
Judy covered the history and the story behind the Dragon Boat Festival in our Cantonese Style Zongzi recipe post last year, so I won’t repeat the details here, except for the fact that dragon boat races started as people paddled out in boats with beating drums to commemorate the patriotic poet Qu Yuan.
The picture above is from Hou Hai, a lake in Beijing where dragon boat racers congregate every year. In fact, wherever there is water and Chinese people, you just may hear drums beating and dragon boat racers on the water this time of year. What I do know for sure is that eating Zongzi sticky rice dumplings has always been a holiday tradition.
You’ll definitely want to check out our Shanghai-style zongzi recipe, which our family has been making ever since I remember. But this year, we also wanted to share other types of zongzi we saw in China while visiting Shanghai. Let’s get right to the important stuff and see some of the different types of Zongzi people eat in China and an amazing video to help you hone your zongzi wrapping skills.
Where to buy Zongzi
As the Duan Wu Festival approaches during the month of June, you’ll see fresh zongzi for sale in Chinatowns everywhere and even at your local Chinese grocery store. For us in China, it all started with a visit down Nanjing Road in Shanghai, where Judy and I saw a long line of people and learned that they were waiting to purchase zongzi.
Judy was a good sport waiting in line, so I had to take some pictures of her finally getting her turn to buy these sticky rice dumpling treats! It was still a few weeks before the holiday when these pictures were taken, so the line was quite manageable and we waited only 20 minutes.
We bought five different varieties that seemed to be the most popular. As the holiday approaches, restaurants, grocery stores, and markets all promote sales of zongzi of all varieties, shapes, sizes, and prices. Advanced orders are taken and vacuum-sealed Zongzi are packed and delivered in beautiful gift boxes right to your doorstep!
You can even get vegetarian zongzi from the famous Jade temple in Shanghai where you can get a vegetarian meal made by Buddhist monks!
Making Zongzi – A Chinese Tradition
One of Judy’s cousins took us to a quaint old water town close to Shanghai city called Qiān Dēng (千灯). Qiān Dēng is one of many ancient towns near Shanghai where you can visit old residences, shops and see scenic water views with buildings set on canals. It was a very quaint site for a half day visit that included a picturesque walk and lunch.
But we really visited Qiān Dēng because we heard from Judy’s cousin about a small store run by an older couple who make the best Shanghai-style meat Zongzi in the area, and we were not disappointed!
This was not the only shop selling zongzi, and there was no visible sign, so you could easily walk by it, but for the old lady wrapping zongzi at incredible speed and efficiency. There were many others shops with ladies busily making zongzi in nice neat stacks, but apparently, this was the best shop according to the locals.
We also learned that in the old days, the typical Chinese villager would have meat zongzi only during the Duan Wu Festival because sweet rice, fatty meats and luscious fillings were eaten only on special occasions. However, more well-off families ate Zongzi regularly, and it was considered a status symbol back in the day.
When we arrived at the store, we started chatting with the store owners while the wife was busily wrapping zongzi at recording breaking speed! Her technique was flawless as she used both hands and her teeth to manipulate and hold the string used for wrapping the Zongzi.
So, we bought sixteen – seriously.
And we were not unusual customers – everyone was buying in large, holiday stocking quantities. We paid in advance to reserve our zongzi and had to come back later in the day when the first batch would be done cooking and ready for sale.
Once I saw the woman’s wrapping technique, I wasted no time in capturing the ultimate folding technique on video here for all of you to enjoy. Even Judy was humbled by her speed and efficiency – every single one was the same shape and size and she cranked out 2 to 3 a minute!
I bet you watched that video a few times and will watch it more if you’re interested in making these at home! We also included step-by-step photos in our Cantonese Zongzi recipe for wrapping using a slightly different method, so there is obviously more than one way to wrap a zongzi!
Now back to the ZongZi unwrappings:
You may notice that each of the Zongzi have different color coded strings used for wrapping, which is the only way to tell the type of zongzi you have without unwrapping them first. We purchased 5 different types at the Nanjing road store, so enjoy these unwrapping photos below!
Cantonese Joong Rice Dumplings
Like our Cantonese Zongzi recipe, you will notice that the first Zongzi we opened is Cantonese style and has a distinctive white color, since soy sauce is not used to season the rice.
Basic seasoned pork belly is the only ingredient in this zongzi rice dumpling, but there are many ingredients that are frequently used in homemade versions. This was basic but delicious!
Shanghai Zongzi Rice Dumplings
Notice this next Zongzi is darker in color and is more typical of what you see in Shanghai. The people of Shanghai love their soy sauce, and incorporate it into most of their dishes. Zongzi is no exception, as the rice in this version is flavored and darkened by soy sauce. Although this is not the Zongzi the lady made in the video we shared earlier, you can see that the rice she used had a brown tint from soy sauce and looked just like the one below when cooked.
For the record, Judy, Sarah, and Kaitlin all prefer the soy sauce flavored Shanghai zongzi.
The next version of rice dumplings we tried contained a salted duck egg, which is a luxurious addition. The salted duck eggs in this Zongzi were really fresh, high-quality, and bursting with flavor.
Red Bean Paste Chinese Rice Dumpling
Sweet Red bean paste is also a favorite of the Shanghainese, who are generally known to have a sweet tooth. You’ll like this version if you like Kaitlin’s Red Bean Bread or Sweet Red Bean Dessert recipes. The sweet red bean paste and sticky rice complement each other and go together nicely.
Gansui Joong Alkaline Rice Dumpling
Lye water sticky rice dumplings, or Jiǎn shuǐ zòng (碱水粽) are quite hard to find these days, especially in Shanghai. We were told that they have gone a bit out of style and are not very popular––to the point where much of the younger generation have never tried them. This is actually not surprising, since Gansui Joong (Cantonese pronunciation) are more common in Guang Dong and Hong Kong. Call us old farts, but Judy and I still like a good Gansui Joong!
Gansui zongzi have the color of transparent yellow jade stone and have a mild flavor. I seem to remember that it is a bit of an acquired taste that is very much dependent upon honey or other syrups for sweetness.
Try some of our favorite Zongzi family recipes this year!
It’s amazing how different people from different regions can have such different takes on the same food! We hope you guys had as much fun reading this post as we did researching and writing it. Happy Dragon Boat Festival!