If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. – J.R.R. Tolkien
Food unites cultures, and comfort foods nourish our souls. What foods give you comfort are often determined by your personal history and your heritage. Traditional homemade foods are international soul food. Food is part of the celebrations in every culture and religion. In China eating is one of the main social activities. People get together around the large round tables, share: dishes, conversations, photos, and memories. Eating in this boisterous communal way strengthens relationships, and unites people in ways it would be difficult for most Americans to understand. This was how I got to know my wife’s family, especially her parents, over wonderfully soulful dishes. My mother-in-law always saw to it that a few of my favorite dishes were on the table during the holidays. We shared a love of Kou Rou, steamed pork belly with taro. I ate too much one year and developed temporary breast enhancements :-).
Before she died, my wife’s mother asked her to learn to make traditional foods and keep the tradition alive. I am a lucky guy because she learned very well. Zongzi (Jong-zuh) are one of the traditional Chinese foods she enjoys making. One of the main ingredients in Southern Style Zongzi is glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves. They can have different fillings depending on the area where they are made. Northern Style tend to be sweet, while Southern Style tend to be meaty. Over the years, I have made some very non-traditional zongzi with my wife, such as: pizza, spicy and cheesecake. Zongzi come in many different shapes. Fatty pork is a traditional meat filling. Similar dishes are found all around East and Southeast Asia.
There are many recipes for zongzi. The ingredients in the photos: glutinous or sticky rice, mung beans (green), yellow are peeled and split mung bean (some people don’t like the rough mung bean skin), pork, roasted peanuts, bamboo leaves (there is a special zongzi leaf, but we can’t find them in the US). As always in Chinese cooking, wash the ingredients. Soak the leaves, beans, and sticky rice overnight. Wash and roast the peanuts. Gather two leaves and use them as the foundation for your zongzi. Steps for filling: Place a good sized helping of sticky rice on first. Add a layer of mung beans; a couple chunks of pork; a spoonful of peanuts, a couple spoons of yellow rice and more mung beans; cover that with sticky rice. Add a leaf to cover the ingredients. Fold the leaf carefully. Tie closed with included dried reed/grass/rice stalk strings”. Placed in steamer , pot, or Insta-Pot (high pressure half an hour). Let steam for at least an hour depending on the size. There is a very large size called “pillow zongzi, that takes twelve hours or more to cook. Unwrap the deliciousness and enjoy.
Zongzi are very versatile In China they are eaten year round but traditionally during the Dragon Boat Festival to commemorate the patriotic poet Qu Yuan (340-278 BC) who committed suicide in protest against government corruption. The legendary history says people rowed out in “dragon boats” to throw zongzi into the river to keep the fish from eating the dead poet’s body. We just eat them because they are tasty. There are so many thousands of dishes in China. China is, without doubt, a so-called food culture, and zongzi is one dish that is available everywhere.
When we had the opportunity to travel outside our local area, we drove to several Asian supermarkets for my wife’s birthday. She had been craving her favorite foods, which are not available in mainstream supermarkets. My sweet wife grew up in southern China in a region famous for its rice noodle dishes. Rice noodles are usually only available in chain supermarkets, except in small packages in specialty “International” food sections. I was so happy she could enjoy so many of her favorites again. When I lived in China, we would occasionally go to the supermarket in a luxury mall, where I would snatch up a few choice foods like: jelly and tortillas. But actually, Chinese supermarkets have many “Western” items for sale, because young people enjoy them. It doesn’t matter how far you may travel in life, there will always be familiar foods you grew up with that will take you back home again. And some foods, like my mom’s “bachelor casserole” disappear when the last person to make them dies. My favorite food was what mom called “Must-Go” – everything in the refrigerator must go to make room for that week’s shopping. This week, you must go feed your soul and enjoy a traditional bite of home.
P.S. – The seventh ingredient for homemade zongzi (or secret ingredient for any homemade foods) is LOVE