Last year, when I was in California, I made my Taiwanese grandmother teach me how to make zongzi.
Zongzi is a tetrahedral glutinous rice dumpling of Chinese origin wrapped in bamboo leaves. It is most often eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival, which falls on the fifth day of the fifth month on the Chinese lunar calendar. This year, that date is June 9.
The festival, also known as Duan Wu Jie, commemorates the life and death of the poet Qu Yuan, who died in 278 BC. Exiled for his reforms, Qu Yuan had committed suicide by throwing himself into a river. Legend says that the local people rushed out in their boats, beat their drums, and splashed water to keep the evil spirits from his body. They also threw chunks of rice into the river to deter the fish from eating his corpse. The rice became the precursor to zongzi, and the act of rushing out into the river eventually morphed into the modern day Dragon Boat race, when people shuttle down rivers in boats decorated like dragons.
Today, the Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated all throughout Asia with boat races and piles of zongzis.
Different countries have different types of rice dumplings. In Taiwan, the regional differences are quite distinct. As a wrapper, the north uses Makino bamboo leaves and the south uses sweet bamboo. Hakka people on the island use neither and opt for the fragrant leaves of a plant called alpinia zerumbet, or shell ginger.
For the north and south, the basic ingredients are sticky rice, pork, salted duck egg yolk, and dried shiitake. Northerners might add in dried squid, chestnuts, taro, or bamboo shoots. Southerners will throw in a fistful of peanuts.
In the north, zongzi is steamed. In the south, zongzi is boiled in water.
My grandmother is a full-blooded Southern woman, so she taught me the latter method. After all, it's the only one she knows. But instead of peanuts, she improvised with black-eyed peas.
"I first started making zongzi when one of your uncles asked me why we didn't eat it during the Dragon Boat Festival," she said. "So I went to the market and one of the ladies there taught me. I found out it was cheaper to make myself."
In her old age, zongzi is one of the few things she will still make from scratch. For her it's a symbol of pride—a reminder of how she managed to make ends meet as a single mother of five kids. As I watched her prep, cook, and fold, I realized how time-intensive it all was. The rice needed to be soaked, the bamboo leaves needed to be prepped, strings needed to be tied.
"I feel like it's easier to just buy it," I wondered aloud. After all, Los Angeles is host to dozens of eateries that have pre-made zongzis. Simply pop them in a steamer and enjoy.
"It's better if we make them ourselves. It's healthier this way. Also back then, things were expensive," she said, before launching into a narrative about World War II, bombs dropping at the local supermarket, and how kids back in her day didn't have shoes.
"It is true. Back then, most people made their own zongzis," a woman who goes by Mrs. Ke tells me later. "It was harsh back then."
I am in Taipei at a local market and it is the week before the Dragon Boat Festival. Mrs. Ke is a zongzi vendor and I have just finished telling her the story of my grandmother.
"On the morning of the festival, we will offer the zongzi at the family altar or go to the temple," she says. Ke has an impressive spread of rice dumplings in front of her—more than six varieties. She sells at least a thousand a day and won't stop until the morning of June 9.
The Dragon Boat Festival is a big deal in Taiwan, though most people simply see it as that time in June with a four-day weekend. Trains and flights are usually fully booked during this time of the year. Many use the opportunity to travel as far away as possible.
Boat races are held at local rivers, but they are mostly attended by family members, friends of the attendees, and the occasional tourist.
The only sense of festivity, the day of, is at the temple. I go to one with my friends and spot plates of zongzis at each altar. We pay our respects and eat lunch at a nearby eatery. Halfway through, my friend pulls out a bag of zongzis that his friend had made and gifted him.
One of them is made with purple rice and filled with cranberries and chickpeas. It's a combination I've never seen before. The homemade zongzi tastes infinitely better than all the variations I had purchased at the market the week before.
I think of my own grandmother, who had made a point of making hundreds of rice dumplings at a time.
"We can share with our friends," she had said. And that, I quickly realize, is the entire purpose of the rice dumpling-filled holiday.