Vittles 2.15 - Zongzi

Can’t a dumpling just be a dumpling?, by Jenny Lau

Not too long before lockdown I wrote two dumpling guides for Eater London which were less maps and more a place to purge every thought I’ve had about dumplings onto one page. The trick with doing guides on a topic as gravely serious as dumplings to to make them as unserious as possible, so no one dares question your choices and methodology. With the Chinese dumpling guide I considered doing a D&D alignment chart based on what type of skin and what filling they had. I had the idea of jiaozi as the true neutral and then basing everything else around it. In this chart, the zongzi would have surely been the chaotic good — dumpling in form (it is something wrapped in something) but in the guise of a non-edible wrapper containing an edible wrapper containing a filling. I’ll let you build your own alignment charts in your head.

In any case, zongzi wouldn’t (and indeed, didn’t) make the map because they are not something you can get very easily. While other dumplings are mainstays of dim sum menus the true zongzi is something micro-seasonal and, more often than not, made at home. In contrast to dim sum’s little crimped jewels, there’s something shabby and ungainly about the zongzi: dumplings the size and shape of the Pyramid stage, messily tied with string and filled with a pick’n’mix of stuff. They crop up in Chinatown about this time, near the fifth day of the fifth lunar month and suddenly it’s neither rabbit nor duck season, but zongzi season. And equally as suddenly, they’re gone.

Still, the best zongzi are always homemade. There’s something not quite right with a production line zongzi — they’re always best irregular and with irregular fillings. I would always know it was zongzi season when my friend Stephanie would bring zongzi to the shop, as part of the rotating roster of gifts customers would leave us. Last year she learnt from her mother how to make them, with wind-dried sausage, pork and salted egg yolks. As much as she complained about their unbeautifulness, they were some of the best I’ve ever had because they were made with care and given expecting nothing in return. Which seems to me the whole point of zonzi — they are transportable gifts that temporarily connect people, a community, or simply people like me who love to eat them.

Today’s newsletter by Jenny Lau contains no recipe for zongzi (you can find plenty of those online, including American ones which unhelpfully describe them as ‘Chinese tamales’) but contains a lifetime’s worth of zongzi knowledge. It’s Dragon Boat festival tomorrow (June 25th) which is normally when these parcels would be exchanged and eaten among London’s Chinese community. Zongzi are more than just food though. As Jenny notes, they are symbolic of something bigger. Chinese foods often have origin stories, and their foundation myth has to say something about who we are and what we want to be. Jenny argues that in the zongzi you will find a philosophy based around collectivism and sacrifice that should be interrogated, but that the real origin story shouldn’t be forgotten: that someone, somewhere, at some time, was hungry, and out of very humble ingredients, a leaf, some rice, some heat, created something that thousands of years later still gives a small and meaningful amount of pleasure to our lives.


Can’t a dumpling just be a dumpling?, by Jenny Lau

In the hierarchy of exhaustingly symbolic Chinese foods, there are the ones that every Chinese kid learns by rote. When the key festivals roll around, we are tested by our elders on their meaning. Moon cakes? “Represents the harvest moon!” Oranges? “Gold!” Whole fish served at Lunar New Year? “Abundance!” Dumplings? “Wealth!” (If in doubt, the answer is usually wealth.) Around the summer solstice, the alpha of dumplings makes its appearance. Enter the zongzi (粽子).

Zongzi are one of the most coveted of all seasonal Chinese foods - an Xmas edition Pringles of sorts - made up of a glutinous rice dumpling packed with typically prized Chinese ingredients such as salted duck egg, wind-dried sausage and pork belly. Zongzi are distinguishable from other Chinese dumplings by their bamboo leaf wrapping and tetrahedral shape, though this changes with terrain and taste. Ask your average Chinese person to explain the zongzi’s origin and they’ll most likely mention its link to the upcoming Dragon Boat Festival (or Duanwu 端午); a multi-sensory fun-for-all-the-family affair. But the meaning of zongzi lacks a catchy one-liner, even though it’s one of the oldest symbolic foods in Chinese culture. Like many Chinese food items, its origin story is long, winding and disputed. Nevertheless, the message of Duanwu festival remains pertinent today. 

If zongzi had an official press release, it would date its origins to 300 BC, the period of China’s Warring States, where each state in China was at war with each other for overall supremacy. The best-known legend centres around famed poet-politician Qu Yuan, a government official in the state of Chu and highly regarded man of the common people. Always the straight talker, his faithful counsel to the King of Chu was not welcomed by all, and eventually his career was sabotaged by corrupt officials who slandered him to the King. Exiled by the King from Chu, he retreated to the countryside for the rest of his life. Watching as his home state was gradually defeated by the stronger Qin state, the heartbroken Qu drowned himself in the Miluo River. The distraught villagers took their boats out to the middle of the river to try and save him, meanwhile throwing sticky rice into the river to keep the fish from eating his body. Over time, the activities of boat racing and rice dumpling eating became a way to commemorate Qu Yuan on the anniversary of his death. 

For modern day Chinese, Duanwu festival provides renewed excitement and anticipation for summer, since it follows the climactic Lunar New Year activities that mark the end of winter. There is the morbid entremets that is Qingming (Tomb-sweeping Day), which falls mid-spring but is mostly inaccessible for diasporic Chinese who live on the other side of the world to their ancestors’ graves. Finding any excuse to gather over food, the Chinese community in the UK would normally be hunting down zongzi from Chinatowns and Asian grocers, while those with the patience and skill would gather to make zongzi together. Recently I’ve even noticed private chefs and supper club hosts selling homemade zongzi to take away! 

There’s another reason Duanwu is exciting for Chinese Londoners. River communities get to enjoy the real deal: dragon boat racing. Every year the London Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival convenes in the Royal Docks, where more than 50 club, corporate, amateur and national teams race in all-day heats. When I attended in 2019 it was heartening to see paddlers from all streams of life. There was strong representation from the UK Chinese, especially younger folk, for whom dragon boat racing has been a way to get in touch with their heritage, but also from non-Chinese participants - including the adequately hued Pink Champagne, a boat made up of breast cancer survivors. Sadly, this year the Festival is cancelled due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. It deals a heavy blow for the UK Chinese community, as it is one of few events in the British calendar that engenders widespread appreciation of traditional Chinese culture. As for me, I had planned to host a Duanwu themed potluck at my local Chinese centre in Hackney, where a hodgepodge group of people of Chinese origin and beyond come together to share home cooked food. In the meantime, zongzi will have to suffice. 

There is reason to believe that zongzi itself is the true protagonist of Duanwu. During agricultural pre-modern China, a couple of millennia before Qu Yuan, the sacrifice of cattle and women would have taken place regularly, offered during a time of dragon-worship as part of rituals to dispel disease and bad luck. Over time, cattle horns replaced flesh, which in turn were replaced by millet (one of the five ancient Chinese grains) dumplings, rather than rice, in triangular shapes, wrapped in leaves. A nice bit of evidence for that is that what we know as jiaozi dumplings (餃子) today is sometimes written as 角子, which sounds phonetically similar, though the latter means ‘horn’. Following superstition around the unlucky number five, the agricultural Chinese would have planned activities around the fifth day of the fifth month in the Lunar calendar (hence Duanwu, ‘double fifth’), such as the rowing of boats downstream, burning offerings to the dead, holding flags and banging drums to ward off evil.⁣ Sound familiar? Eventually these practices would have converged in a dragon boat race on the banks of the Yangtze and Yellow River, where millet was commonly eaten.⁣

It’s probable that over time the animistic rites were cleaned up and reshaped into Qu Yuan’s patriotic parable. As is often the case, origin stories are not to be taken at face value; they are a way to subtly encode a particular philosophy. It’s no surprise that Duanwu is one of the most celebrated Chinese holidays; by honouring a figure whose purity of righteousness drove him to rather die than see his beloved country torn apart, Duanwu is an exemplary case study of Chinese ‘filial piety’. Especially today when turning to the benevolence of the state, rather than god(s), is a very CCP-approved definition of faith. 

Charting the 4,000 year evolution of dumpling culture, we see how zongzi became an edible blueprint for Chinese morality. Our version of Sunday sermons take place at the altar of the dining table, with inter-generational knowledge transmitted through parables as intricately wrapped as the dumplings themselves. But with the loosening of togetherness within families and communities, there is a risk that the message gets lost. It’s no wonder the younger Chinese generation is losing touch with these long-winded legends and superstitions. How can they be relevant today? Can’t a dumpling just be a dumpling? 

Today notions of sacrifice, which have always been universal to religions and cultures, seem redundant in our lives of plenty. That is, until sacrifice became the topic du jour in the midst of a global pandemic. Ongoing analysis points to how countries with highly collectivist societies - including China - have responded with an inherent willingness to make personal sacrifices for the greater good. Meanwhile the UK government has struggled to engender mass compliance, wavering alternately between methods of the carrot and stick variety, finally settling on marketing sacrifice as a very British act of patriotism. It is not that everyone needs to emulate Qu Yuan — God knows enough UK front-line workers have sacrificed their lives — but rather that we are missing a tangible, practical connection to those lofty concepts of moral virtue. That could be the collective spirit and sacrifice inherent in dragon boat racing, or in the teamwork of making zongzi together. As one paddler in the Thames Dragon Boat Club told me: “Personal interest doesn’t exist in dragon boat racing at all. It’s a sport which is about ‘we’ and not ‘me’.”

Sometimes the connection can be as simple as staring down at your plate and remembering the lectures of your elders. Maybe there is a place in modern life for ancient parables, after all.

Jenny Lau blogs about diasporic identity via the lens of Chinese food. In pre-COVID-19 times she was host of the #ChineseFoodiesofIG potluck meet-up. You can find her on Instagram as instagram.com/celestialpeach_uk

The illustration was done by Kenn Lam, an illustrator and visual artist whose inspirations range from classical Japanese Ukiyo-e art to traditional Chinese medicine labels and Victorian headstones. You can find his work on his website or his Instagram.

The fee for today’s newsletter was donated to Hackney Chinese Community Services