The Chinese celebrate Duanwu Festival by eating rice dumplings of all shapes and sizes. For some who live in other countries, it is a yearly tradition, just as their relatives at home guard the culinary heritage of both taste and culture. Pauline D. Loh explores the links between heart and home.
Traditions become precious when they become the only links to ancestral roots and historical heritage. This has always been the case, especially for people who wander, and no one has gone further afield than the Chinese. That is the reason why Duanwu is now a global festival, celebrated on all five continents. Studies have shown that the strongest guardians of traditional Chinese festivities are often overseas Chinese communities. In Chinatowns from the United Kingdom to the United States, lion and dragon dances are colorful components of Lunar New Year celebrations, just as the rice dumplings, or zongzi, are made and eaten at Duanwu in almost every major city in the world.
In countries nearer home where the Chinese Diaspora first landed, the humble rice dumpling has evolved and incorporated local tastes. Sometimes it is even borrowed for local festivals. In Vietnam, for example, dumplings are eaten most often for Tet, the Vietnamese New Year.
Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and the Philippines all have similar or evolved versions of the rice dumpling, while in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, they are so popular that zongzi are sold all year round, and prepared with local ingredients such as spices and chili.
Within China itself, regional varieties reflect local tastes and traditions, with savory dumplings popular south of the Yangtze River and predominantly sweet dumplings eaten in the north.
But one thread runs through it all - the eating of the rice dumplings commemorates a tradition that goes back thousands of years, associated with folklore and legends that include a colorful tale of poetry and patriotism, and a nationalistic pride that runs in the blood of the sons of the Yellow Emperor no matter how far they wander.
In the United States, second-generation ethnic Chinese are still familiar with the tastes of their ancestral home, even if they did lose some of the history in translation.
Donna Ma, 42, whose parents emigrated from Hong Kong, remembers growing up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.
"My mom would make zongzi, but my brothers and I just thought of them as another way to cook rice with meat. We knew there was some story about the parcels of rice and meat being thrown into the sea so that the body of some 'good guy' would not be eaten by the fish.
"I do remember wondering how the fish were able to unwrap the parcels, as I had needed scissors to cut them open."
She was referring to the story of Qu Yuan (339-278 BC), the poet scholar from the Warring States Period who threw himself into the river in protest against rampant corruption in court. The people commemorated his convictions by making bundles of rice and sacrificing it to the river gods.
There is also a tradition of banging on drums and racing along the river in dragon boats to scare away fish and crustaceans that might otherwise have made a feast of the poet's body.
Ma's mother and grandmother kept the tradition alive each year by wrapping their own dumplings.
"Where we lived, we only had homemade zongzi. You couldn't buy them on the street like you could in China. If you didn't have a mom or grandmother making these for you, you missed out," Ma concludes.
Rebecca Lo, 43, a freelance writer in Hong Kong, grew up in Toronto, where her parents had settled.
"We don't have a holiday at Duanwu but I've always liked the fable associated with the festival in The Magic Pears, a children's book about ancient Chinese fables illustrated by my dad's artist friend," she says.
"My family is quite traditional and my parents have a lot of good friends who had also immigrated to Toronto. They would often give us handmade dumplings to thank my father for his kindness or for my mother - because she was always everyone's favorite. She was very beautiful when she was younger."
Lo's father is a Buddhist lecturer and an architectural and structural specialist. "
Growing up, I always found the dumplings a bit dusty tasting but I grew fonder of them as an adult because they contain a lot of memories."
For journalist Brian Liou, 34, growing up in San Francisco meant he had plenty of chances to sample rice dumplings as a child. It is the food he remembers best, and it is this memory he holds dear at Duanwu, even if the origins of the festival are also almost lost to him.
"Our fridge always had a steady supply of zongzi. It made for the perfect lunch to take to school or as an after-school snack. In Beijing, I've had a hard time finding the fat savory zongzi. It seems that northern Chinese mostly eat dumplings that are sweet.
"The zongzi here are much smaller. It seems like with everything in the US, they've gotten bigger there. The zongzi from Chinese supermarkets in Chinatown in San Francisco or around the Bay Area mostly came with peanuts or yellow beans, sweet sausages or fatty pork and salted duck egg yolk."
American chef and writer Lillian Chou had to return to Asia before she connected the festival with the food.
"Actually, we never celebrated this holiday in my home and I hadn't heard of it until I moved to Singapore in 1999. I recall my Cantonese grandmother making zongzi filled with salted egg yolks, some pork and chestnuts on special occasions, and I'm pretty certain it must have been Duanwu. Unfortunately, she is long gone so I cannot ask her.
"One thing about Americans, given the melting pot of cuisines - we often referred to zongzi as Chinese tamales.
"Many Chinese grocers sell ready-made zongzi with different markings to identify the fillings. We tend to have savory meat dumplings like the Shanghai-style. The most popular that I know of has the Cantonese filling."
Chou's mother served dumplings for breakfast and she remembers her mother cutting them with string "like an Italian might slice firm polenta".
"When there was time, they were pan-fried so they were slightly crisp on the edge and gooey yummy on the inside. But more often, they were steamed. Now people zap them in the microwave."
Nearer home, the ethnic Chinese communities in Singapore and Malaysia have made the zongzi their own - except they don't call it "zongzi". In the local vernacular, the dumplings are known as "bak chang", which comes from the southern Chinese dialects of Fujian and Chaozhou.
K.F. Seetoh, arguably Singapore's most famous food-lover and publisher of an eating guide called Makansutra, says dumplings have remained original in most cases, with none of the over-commercialization and over-packaging prevalent in China.
"We still have the mostly traditional versions, like the ki chang (alkaline dumplings), sweet ones with red beans, 'peasant-style' mung beans, and Hokkien (Fujianese) salted meat.
"There is also the Peranakan bak chang that uses ketumbar (coriander seed powder) as a base marinade for the meat, with candy melon strips. Unlike moon cakes for Mid-Autumn Festival, the bak chang culture has remained largely true to origin."
Seetoh refers to folk customs and culinary heritage brought over by the Cantonese, Fujianese and Chaozhou people, who made up the bulk of the pioneer Chinese settlers in Malaysia and Singapore.
"The dumplings are still mostly sold in little stalls, restaurants and hotels, and folks buy them as gifts for friends and family. This has become a form of bonding today."
Seetoh remembers the dumplings of his childhood and laments some of the sacrifices made for health.
"I miss the really sinful Hokkien salted meat and chestnut versions which the old aunties used to make with a slab of fat inside (to moisten, smoothen and enhance flavors). These days, overly health-conscious folks are looking at lean meat only. It is just so different in texture and mouth sensation."
Duanwu is a good excuse to reconnect with friends and relatives, and Seetoh says he will arrive bearing bags of dumplings. For him, the best still come from the little dumpling houses.
"These shops can never make enough to meet demand, and you have to order months in advance."
Joni Ng, 34, a senior manager at one of Singapore's largest department stores, says homemade dumplings are still the best, especially those made by her grandmother.
"Duanwu reminds me of being in my grandmother's kitchen watching my mom, aunts and grandma at work. They will be sorting the rice grains, washing the chestnuts, stir-frying ingredients and cleaning the bamboo leaves.
"I love the smell of dumplings being steamed. During that day, there will be prayers to the ancestors complete with a fresh brew of Chinese tea.
"We would enjoy the traditional bak chang with chestnuts and dried oysters. It brings back such a sense of nostalgia for me. My sister and I used to compete to see who had the most number of whole chestnuts or if we got any dried oysters.
"After my grandfather passed away two years ago, we stopped making the dumplings, and we now buy them."
Familiar stories all, and each speaks of the links that connect people and culture, migrants with ancestral connections and most of all, the family. As long as the Chinese love to eat, the ties that bind will stay and strengthen with each generation.