Tuesday, June 13, 2017

ZOMG We Made Zong Zi! (Shanghai Style)

粽子, or "zongzi" - green leafy packages tied up with string (definitely one of our favorite things).  There's just something about the plump, familiar pyramidal shape, the comfortable weight of it in your hand, the distinct aroma of those leaf wrappers emanating from the stove, the way it playfully tumbles out when unwrapped.  Wes and I both have very fond childhood memories revolving around these traditional Chinese sticky rice tamales.  Much like the custom of making Christmas cookies in American households, preparing zongzi was a treat that generations of Chinese children looked forward to on the fifth day of the fifth month of each lunar year, "Duanwu Jie," also known as the Dragon Boat Festival.  But, as we were both raised in second-generation Chinese-American families, we never got to experience (the torture of) making them ourselves.  All we did was eat them...until last weekend.

Wes tells me that he used to always look forward to receiving zongzi as a child; he remembers coming home to see a bag of them hanging from the doorknob with newspapers and tangerines.  His mom would get lots of hand-wrapped zongzi from her family of ten, so multiple people made them and you never knew what you were gonna get inside, though he always hoped for the fatty pork bits and peanuts, and avoided the egg yolks.  Nowadays, Wes's aunts have ensured that we always have an ongoing zongzi inventory in our freezer, unloading sacks of them every year during the Dragon Boat Festival around this time, during Chinese New Year sometimes, and even on Thanksgiving if they felt like it.  Many a zongzi has come to the rescue when we didn't have time to cook dinner after work.

For me, I remember getting to eat them every once in a while when my mom special-orders them from a lady who makes them at home (pretty much the zongzi blackmarket of Irvine)...but they never seemed to compare to the ones in Taiwan.  Even if it wasn't necessarily around the Dragon Boat Festival holiday, zongzi was one of those things that we had to buy and eat when we went to my grandma's place in Taipei.  We would walk over to the Nanmen Market and pick some out from one of those stalls where they handmake them.  I've always favored the ones with the shiitake mushrooms inside, and the browner the rice, the better (because it would have been drenched in soy sauce!).  I, unlike Wes, avoided the peanuts.  My family also likes the sweet ones, with rice and red bean paste inside, while Wes never grew up with those and doesn't particularly enjoy them as an adult.  My mom has successfully smuggled the red bean ones back to the United States a few times - she says that since there isn't meat inside it's okay...but really, how can you tell what's in it until you open it?  She takes the risk anyway.

While neither Wes nor I grew up watching our mothers and aunts squatting around crafting these tamales, it's easy to romanticize the idea based on our parents' stories.  How nice it must be, to gather around big bowls of ingredients and a stack of soaked leaves, filling and folding the afternoon away, chatting and bonding.  My mom must have wanted to recreate that experience, so she actually brought back some of these leaves from Taiwan (legal, right?), and invited us kids over to try our hand at this age-old tradition.  Boy, were we all in for a rude awakening.  Wrapping your own zongzi is maybe one of our most confusing and excruciating kitchen experiments to date (making pizza dough is another one).  Even my mom had no recollection of how to properly get them squared away, so rather than gathering around the ingredients, we found ourselves in a knot around the computer, watching blurry videos of old ladies deftly assembling them as if they were schoolboys folding paper airplanes.  Practice makes almost-perfect though... after a few hapless incidents (like, exploding zongzi all over the floor), we were able to scrounge up a few that actually looked somewhat triangular.  The most relieving part was that they all tasted exactly like zongzi.  Thanks, Mom!!  Now, I gotta write down the recipe before we all forget next year.

The tale behind this wonderful food is actually sort of dark.  The story best known in modern China holds that the festival commemorates the death of the poet and minister Qu Yuan (c. 340–278 BC) of the ancient state of Chu during the Warring States period of the Zhou Dynasty.  A cadet member of the Chu royal house, Qu served in high offices. However, when the king decided to ally with the increasingly powerful state of Qin, Qu was banished for opposing the alliance and even accused of treason.  During his exile, Qu Yuan wrote a great deal of poetry. Twenty-eight years later, Qin captured Ying, the Chu capital. In despair, Qu Yuan committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River.

It is said that the local people, who admired him, raced out in their boats to save him, or at least retrieve his body. This is said to have been the origin of dragon boat races. When his body could not be found, they dropped balls of sticky rice into the river so that the fish would eat them instead of Qu Yuan's body. This is said to be the origin of zong-zi.

So basically, the Chinese have been making zongzi for at least 2,000 years.  I'm sure that sticky rice balls wrapped in leaves was already a common thing to eat long before the event of Qu Yuan's suicide.  But over time, what constitutes a zongzi today has changed with its dissipation across China, into  Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and other surrounding Asian countries.  Just the difference between Wes's preferences and my preferences show how diverse this dish has become.  The first time I tasted one from Wes's aunts, I was confused.  The color of the rice was whiter than expected, and the filling was totally new to me - sweet sausage and mung beans.  Likewise, Wes has never had shiitake mushrooms in his zongzi (which, by the way, he pronounces something like "joong").

Ingredients aside, even the procedures can be very different across countries or even within the same country.  My mom's mom, who is originally from China, makes waisheng zong / Shanghai-style zongzi, which involves soaking the sticky rice overnight and wrapping it uncooked with raw marinated meat, then dropping it into boiling water for an extended time.  My dad's mom, who is originally from Taiwan, makes a Taiwanese-style zongzi by initially stir-frying the sticky rice with flavorings and many other ingredients, wrapping it all cooked, and steaming it for a more brief amount of time after.  I still haven't seen how the women of the Wong family do it, but I'll bet that it's going to be yet another way, since they are all from Hong Kong originally.  It's fascinating!

For now, I'm recording my mother's recipe, which is essentially her mother's recipe.  The proportions are my best estimate of what she put in.  In the future, when we inevitably have more zongzi adventures, I will try to collect more recipes from the many sides of our families.  I'm sure that when the two of us attempt to do this ourselves, our version will be a mishmash of these inherited methodologies.  We'll have some Cantonese ingredients and some Taiwanese, and maybe we'll prepare everything Shanghai-style.  But first and foremost, we'll need to practice folding them...so as not to waste any of the precious filling - or so as not to make fools of ourselves for a second time! 

鮮肉粽子 "Xian Rou Zong Zi" // Shanghai Style Zongzi Recipe


  • Zongzi leaves (2 or 3 needed for each zongzi, so the amount depends on how many you want to make. These can be purchased in packages at a Chinese supermarket.)
  • String for tying (kitchen twine would work, but usually string should come with the leaves when you buy them)

Pork filling:
~1 lb. of pork (my mom likes pork shoulder, but pork belly is also popular)
1/3 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons sesame oil
3 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
1/2" piece of ginger, minced finely
White pepper, if desired
Scallions, finely chopped, if desired

Rice filling:
3 cups short grain sweet rice (a.k.a. glutinous rice, or sticky rice)
1/2 cup soy sauce
Dash of salt


Preparation (up to a day ahead of time):
1. Wash the rice.  Soak the glutinous rice in water overnight.  If rice is not soaked, the rice in the zongzi will not be soft enough after it is cooked.
2.  Cut the pork shoulder into 1-inch chunks and place in a bowl with soy sauce, rice wine, sesame oil, and ginger.  Let it marinate for at least 4 hours.

Making the Zongzi:

1.  Drain the rice in a colander the next day.  It will take a little while for the water to completely drain out, ~30 minutes.  Mix the drained rice with 2 tablespoons of soy sauce and some salt.

2.  Place the leaves in a pot of water and boil for a few minutes - this is to make sure that the rice won't stick to the leaves.  Make sure the entire leaves are submerged.  My mom placed heavy bowls over the leaves.  Then, run the leaves under cold water and rinse each leaf on both sides.  Lay them flat.

3.  Use kitchen shears to cut the sharp ends of each leaf off, to prevent the stems from poking the zongzi and rupturing them while wrapping!


4.  Okay, so for the wrapping part, rather than trying to describe how to fold the leaves and tie the string, here's a link to the video that we watched of the disgruntled old lady making her zongzi.  Skip to 10:11 to watch her wrap - the beginning part of the video shows her making zongzi the Taiwanese way (cooking all of the filling first), which is not what we did here.  Try not to get discouraged - she's not the most peppy nor sexy but she sure knows what she's doing.

5.  Drop the completed zongzi straight into a large pot of boiling water.  Once it comes to a boil, let them continue to cook in rolling water for about 90 minutes to two hours, depending on how many are in there and how large they are.

6.  Cut or untie the string, unwrap, and take a good whiff!  That's the nostalgic smell of happiness that every Chinese person knows and loves!

 It was a very playful and delicious Duanwu Jie "Dragon Boat Festival" this year, and we'd like to preserve this custom and pass it down to future generations ourselves.  Hopefully this blog post is the first step in perpetuating the practice.  Thank you, Mom, for introducing us all and for being able to laugh with (or at) us through the learning process.

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