Dragon Boat Festival Means Time for 'Zongzi' (粽子)

People have been heading to Asian markets to stock up, because 端午, or 'Duan Wu,' falls on Monday this year.

While summer doesn't officially begin until late June in the West, the Chinese summer solstice arrives Monday, which coincides with the fifth day of the fifth month of this lunar year. In Mandarin, the holiday is named Duan Wu 端午.

The lunar summer solstice, also known as Dragon Boat Festival for the custom of having dragon boat races on the holiday, is time for local Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants to have zongzi (pronounced as dsong-dse in Mandarin) 粽子. That's a fist-sized, dried-leaf-wrapped pyramid or cube that looks like the Mexican tamale but is wrapped with bamboo leaves instead of corn husks and has glutinous rice, not cornmeal, as its main ingredient.

A variety of zongzi have been on display at local Chinese markets since about two weeks ago. Most of them contain pieces of stewed pork, salted egg yolk and boiled peanuts. Vegetarian ones have similar ingredients but with beans or dried tofu in lieu of pork. There are also sweet ones, with a sugary stuffing in the rice, for dessert.

in Cupertino, Mountain View and Milpitas all carry many imported zongzi in the frozen-food section and some homemade ones in the hot deli. The signs at the stores call these items "rice dumplings," though some would argue they are quite different from the flour-wrapped dumplings found in some Chinese restaurants.

in Cupertino displays four kinds of homemade zongzi in four big boxes. Those fresh out of the steamer feel warm to the touch and smell aromatic. James and Jane Liu, a married couple who regularly shop there, said they are not buying any, because they ordered Shanghai-style ones from a home business.

“We prefer the Shanghai style, because the rice is soaked in the sauce before steaming, and that makes the flavor permeate the rice,” said James Liu in Mandarin. “If it's Cantonese or Taiwanese style, the rice is bland and you'll have to use soy sauce as a dip. But you don't have to if it's Shanghai style.”

Another Cupertino resident, Sophia Chang, bought some sweet zongzi stuffed with azuki bean (a grain-sized dark red bean) paste after her disappointment with the three savory kinds available at Marina Food.

“I'm going to give the sweet ones a try,” said Chang. “The savory ones here don't have black mushrooms. I miss those with black mushrooms I had in Taiwan. You just can't find them here.”

There are zongzi with black mushrooms at in Cupertino. Not all Fantasia stores carry them as a snack item, but the Cupertino store does carry the festival must-have year round.

It's rare for a cafe or Chinese restaurant to serve zongzi, because they can't beat the around-$2-each price at the local markets. However, Chef Chu's in Los Altos prepared 1,000 sweet mini zongzi as a complimentary dessert for lucky customers during over the weekend and Monday. The give-away ends when the zongzi run out.

“We are doing this to celebrate Dragon Boat Festival and to give Americans some knowledge about the Chinese holiday,” chef Lawrence Chu said. “We are not just a restaurant. We are a cultural center to our American customers.”

Some local business took advantage of the holiday. Palo Alto Hills Golf and Country Club called its event of Sunday the “Dragon Boat Golf Tournament."

About 80 tournament participants had dinner afterward at Chef Chu's, where Chu shared the history behind Dragon Boat Festival.

According to Chu and history books, ancient Chinese believed the sun was exactly in the middle of the sky at noon on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, which therefore marked the beginning of summer. But the holiday has meant far more than the Chinese summer solstice, as it originated as a day of commemoration for a patriotic poet, Qu Yuan (340-278 BC).

During the period of Warring States, there were seven kingdoms in the territory of today’s China, and Qu Yuan once held a high-ranked official’s position in the Chu Kingdom, the southernmost one of the seven.

Qu (according to Chinese custom, the surname comes first) had great strategies to keep Chu strong. But other officials were jealous of him, spread rumors about him, and eventually persuaded the king to banish him.

Qu spent the next 20 years in exile until the Qin Kingdom conquered his beloved Chu Kingdom. Then he drowned himself in the Miluo, a tributary of the Yangtze, on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month that year.

Many sympathizers took their boats out in an attempt to save him. When they finally gave up searching, they decided to wrap rice with reed or bamboo leaves and throw the little packs into the Miluo in hope that the fish would eat the rice rather than Qu’s body.

Keeping the corpse intact was the way of showing ultimate respect for the deceased in Chinese culture.

To commemorate Qu Yuan, villagers threw leaf-wrapped rice into the Miluo and rowed boats on the river on every anniversary of his death. The rice-dish making and the boat rowing gradually evolved into nationwide holiday customs, which later spread through East Asia as well as Southeast Asia, and eventually followed Chinese, Korean, Singaporean and Vietnamese immigrants to America.

As the large Vietnamese community in Silicon Valley shares the cultural holiday with Chinese Americans, Marina Food Market in Milpitas carries Vietnamese-style rice dumplings, called bánh tro.

A distinctive ingredient in bánh tro is mung beans, which are grain-sized in a yellowish olive green color. While the Chinese usually use mung beans to make desserts, the Vietnamese put them in savory bánh tro.

Another difference is the Vietnamese use of bananas, rather than azuki bean paste, in sweet bánh tro.

Jean Yeh, a Vietnamese American living in Milpitas, said she will buy some bánh tro from the Milpitas Marina Food for her big family, though she used to make them at home.

“Actually you can buy bamboo leaves, sticky rice and other ingredients from the market to make your own,” Yeh said. “But it's a lot of work. It's much easier to just buy these.”


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