How Zongzi Became the Must-Eat Food During the Dragon Boat Festival

A festive recipe to ward off sea monsters remains a staple of one of China’s biggest cultural events

Zongzi are dumplings made from sticky glutinous rice wrapped neatly in a bamboo leaf and filled with umami-rich ingredients, like marinated pork, shiitake mushrooms, peanuts and beans. Cheryl Chan/Getty Images

Pierogies, cepelinai, mandu. Most cultures have their own version of dumplings. The pillows of deliciousness are the ultimate comfort food for many people around the world.

The Chinese have many variations: steamed, fried, grilled on a hot plate and even served piping hot with soup inside. But the king of all dumplings might just be zongzi, a parcel made of sticky glutinous rice wrapped neatly in a bamboo leaf and filled with umami-rich ingredients, like marinated pork, shiitake mushrooms, peanuts and beans. Eaten any time of the day and year by the dumpling-obsessed, they are most commonly enjoyed during one of China’s biggest cultural events: the Dragon Boat Festival.

Unlike stir-fry dishes from China that come with a reputation of being fast, quick and easy, making zongzi is a very labor-intensive process. In the buildup to the Dragon Boat Festival, my Taiwanese mom would prepare all the necessary ingredients. First, she would immaculately wash the bamboo leaves, scrubbing them free from dirt and grime, and continuously rinse the glutinous rice until the water ran clear to remove unnecessary starch, which could make the dumplings claggy. The next step would involve marinating, spicing and chopping all the ingredients for the filling—a mix of fatty pork belly, shiitake mushrooms, peanuts and home-cured salted egg yolks for that extra touch of luxury. With all the ingredients laid out on a kitchen bench, my mom would then spend a couple of hours wrapping the zongzi. Sitting on a small stool with a piece of string hanging from a hook, she twisted the bamboo leaves in her nimble hands to form a pocket to hold the rice, before filling just the right portion-size of meat, peanuts and mushrooms to prevent the zongzi from bursting when steamed or boiled, and tying the bundle up with the string. The final installment of the time-consuming process was the most difficult: waiting for at least four hours for the savory pockets to cook to a tender rice dumpling.

How Zongzi Became the Must-Eat Food During the Dragon Boat Festival
Wrapping a zongzi is still one of the trickiest techniques in the kitchen. Ivy Chen

Even today, my mom’s friends and my aunties drop by spontaneously, handing over their freshly steamed, handmade zongzi—allowing my mom and I to have our own personal collection of aromatic bamboo-infused sticky rice dumplings to be enjoyed throughout what we like to call “zongzi season.”

History of the Dragon Boat Festival

Each year, at the start of the lunar calendar, billions of Asians welcome the Lunar New Year by eating lucky foods like dumplings, noodles and pomelos for wealth, longevity and happiness, respectively. As at most other Chinese celebrations, food plays an important role in the celebrations of the Dragon Boat Festival.

Falling on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, the Dragon Boat Festival (known in Chinese as duanwu jie) is usually celebrated at the start of summer. This year’s festival will be on June 10, and as in all years since the early fifth and sixth centuries C.E., scores of people of Chinese descent will be heading out to the nearest body of water for dragon boat races, a competitive water sport with decorative boats and paddles. During the festivities, these large, tetrahedral-shaped dumplings can be found freshly steamed or boiled—hanging by a string from ceilings of bakeries, restaurants and even grocers—enticing passers-by to stop and buy a bunch for family and friends.

2024 China-ASEAN Dragon Boat Open In Wuzhou
Competitors race at the 2024 China-ASEAN Dragon Boat Open on June 2 in Wuzhou, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region of China. Jiang Hui/VCG via Getty Images

The origins of the Dragon Boat Festival go back long before the fifth century, to when Qu Yuan (340-278 B.C.E.), generally seen as China’s first known poet, lived and China was made up of independent states all vying for power. A deeply patriotic statesman and chief advisor to the Chu Kingdom, Qu Yuan warned his emperor of a looming military takeover by the imperial Qin dynasty. The emperor’s court saw his warnings as disloyalty, and the emperor sent Qu Yuan to exile. Legend has it that Qu Yuan, disheartened by his government’s lack of trust, took a large stone, tied it to his waist and drowned himself in the Miluo River after the Qin overthrew the Chu capital a few years later.

“The death of Qu Yan occurred on the fifth day of the fifth month,” says Kam Louie, a Sinologist at the University of Hong Kong and Australia’s University of New South Wales. “People were said to have been so grief-stricken that they decorated their boats with dragon heads and tails and raced around the river to try and find his body while drumming and yelling to make a lot of noise to prevent his body from being eaten by fish and other sea creatures.”

parade of fancy dragon boats in Jiang village in Hangzhou in east China's Zhejiang province
People watch a traditional parade of fancy dragon boats in Jiang village in Hangzhou in east China's Zhejiang province this week. LONG WEI / Feature China/Future Publishing via Getty Images

Residents also hastily prepared rice balls and threw them into the river to stop fish from eating Qu Yuan’s body. This ritual continued for many years, evolving over time into dragon boat racing and the eating of zongzi. The folktale is one of the first stories Chinese children learn about in school.

“Despite its supposed beginnings of suicides and other dramatic events, the duanwu festival is a colorful, joyful and fulfilling affair,” says Louie, an avid dragon boat racer. “The festival is now seen as a cheerful and noisy carnival that’s still practiced today and has spread from China to Southeast Asia.”

The even longer history of zongzi, and its many variations

While zongzi are heavily associated with the Dragon Boat Festival, historically, the sticky rice dumplings date back to the earliest agricultural settlements of ancient China. According to Luo Shuwei, a historian and researcher at Tianjin Academy of Social Sciences in China, zongzi were first called tongzong (loosely translated as “dumplings in a tube”), and were eaten as a seasonal food to mark the start of summer. History books show that during the Spring and Autumn Period of ancient Chinese history, from around 770 to 476 B.C.E., farmers would wrap sticky rice in wild rice leaves, fill the rice-lined leaves with braised meats or wild vegetables, and take them to the rice fields as a humble snack to help them power through the day.

selling zongzi in Shanghai
People purchase zongzi at a store on East Nanjing Road in Shanghai ahead of this year's Dragon Boat Festival. Yin Liqin/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images

Helen Xu, owner of Re’em Yarra Valley, a boutique hotel in Victoria, Australia, tells me that when she was growing up in Yiwu, Zhejiang Province, China, zongzi were eaten during special occasions, as well as being offered to ancestors during yearly rituals at the temple. “My grandma made all sorts of zongzi whenever there was a wedding, and the whole village would call upon my waipo [grandma] and order her square zongzi, which would be filled with sweet bean paste and given out as wedding gifts,” says Xu.

Across China’s many provinces, the number of varieties of zongzi is unknown, but my own aunties tell me that there are at least 40 easily identifiable types, which vary in wrapping (bamboo or sweet leaf), cooking technique (steaming or boiling), and, of course, filling (pork, mushroom or legumes, and sweet, salty and even a combination of the both). In Beijing, glutinous rice or millet surrounds a sweet red bean paste filling, and in Shanghai, a traditional zongzi is made with either soy-marinated rice or fillings like salted ham and pork. Zongzi relatives are popular beyond China, too. In Vietnam, zongzi are called banh chung; they are square-shaped and filled with mung beans instead of meat.

“My grandma’s rice dumplings were made up of at least four pieces of bamboo leaves,” says Xu. “Only a very skilled person could make them, as it requires a perfect square, and some of them weighed about one kilo, which were so hard to wrap neatly. The first one I made when I was a kid, all of the rice spilled out of the wrapping.”

Employees pack cooked zongzi at a food factory in Yichang, Hubei Province in China
Employees pack cooked zongzi at a food factory in Yichang, Hubei Province of China as the festival approaches. Wang Huifu/VCG via Getty Images

My own mother toggles between two popular versions from Taiwan and makes them both each year to feed my insatiable appetite for the festive food. The southern Taiwanese zongzi is my favorite, because unlike the ones found in the north, the rice is not first stir-fried in oil before being wrapped in the bamboo leaf, so the flavors are somewhat cleaner and lighter and allow the bamboo leaf to permeate through to the rice nicely. My mom never deviates too far from the traditional Taiwanese filling of soy-marinated mushrooms, pork and a sprinkle of boiled peanuts.

Ivy Chen, a cookbook author who offers classes in Taipei to home cooks who want to perfect their skills, says that her favorite zongzi are those from the southwestern Taiwanese city of Tainan, where she was born and still lives.

“As a little child, making zongzi was more of a family reunion and special feast than a celebration of the Dragon Boat Festival,” she says. “I remember growing up in Taiwan and helping my mum make zongzi when I was 10 years old, with the fried shallots and black bean sauce filling our kitchen as the dumplings were being steamed.”

Chen’s favorite filling is glutinous rice with split mung beans. “Every family has their own recipe and traditions given that Chinese culture has spread so widely over Asia,” she says.

Mastering the art of making zongzi

For many professional chefs who have mastered flambé, soufflé and grilling on an open flame, wrapping a zongzi is still one of the trickiest techniques in the kitchen. I have yet to succeed at it at home, despite eating zongzi for more than three decades.

As a veteran teacher, Chen has her warnings. “Don’t press the rice too tight in the cone shape of the bamboo leaf wrap,” she says. “The rice will expand when cooking in the water, so if you overfill or press too hard on the rice, the zongzi will become too dense and firm to eat.”

How Zongzi Became the Must-Eat Food During the Dragon Boat Festival
Cookbook author Ivy Chen’s favorite filling is glutinous rice with split mung beans. Ivy Chen

Winston Zhang is the Shanghai-born co-owner and chef at Akaiito, a Japanese restaurant in my hometown of Melbourne, Australia. “I don’t personally make it, but zongzi is 100 percent one of my favorite foods,” he says. “My partner can make very transitional Shanghai-style zongzi, which are super delicious. She always makes a lot and shares them with friends to celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival.”

For Zhang, the mention of zongzi conjures up sensory-filled memories of his grandmother making them during the Dragon Boat Festival. “She would start to prepare it at least two weeks prior from leaf, rice to filling. The smell of zongzi cooking would always fill the room, and I would always make sure I was there to try the first bite!” he says. Zhang says he can easily find regional varieties of zongzi vacuum-packed in Asian supermarkets in Australia. That said, “Nothing can compete with homemade zongzi,” he says. “They are fresh and full of love.”

Jane Low, chef at Old Palm Liquor in Melbourne, wishes she had learned her grandmother’s zongzi-making technique before she died, so that she could carry on her legacy.

“It is important to retain the romanticism surrounding many Chinese dishes and their ties to cultural or historical events,” Low says. “Whether they are factual or lore, the visual and delicious traditions of stories past are a gentle reminder of our culture and history that has been passed down many generations.”

Ivy Chen’s Tainan Pork Zongzi

Makes 36 pieces


  • 2.6 pounds long-grain glutinous rice
  • 18 ounces peanuts, shelled
  • 36 pieces chestnut (optional)
  • 1/3 cup dried shrimp
  • 36 pieces dried shiitake mushroom
  • 72 pieces dried bamboo leaves
  • 20 ounces pork belly
  • 36 pieces salted duck egg yolk
  • 2 tablespoons cooking oil
  • 1 cup fried shallots
  • 6 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons rice wine, plus more for egg yolks
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 36 pieces of cotton twine, 28 inches long


To make filling

  1. Rinse and soak glutinous rice and peanuts separately in water for at least two hours. Drain well.
  2. Pre-cook peanuts in water for 30 minutes, and retain the cooking water. This pre-cooking is for the softness of peanuts; you can skip it if crunchy peanuts are preferred.
  3. Rinse and soak chestnuts in water for one hour if using dried ones. Drain well. Retain the soaking water for braising the pork and other ingredients. Pick off any shell that is stuck on the chestnuts.
  4. Soak dried shrimp in water for ten minutes. Rinse and drain well.
  5. Rinse and soak dried shiitakes in water for one hour and drain well. Retain the soaking water for braising the pork and other ingredients.
  6. Bring a big pot of water to a boil over high heat. Blanch bamboo leaves in boiling water until the color changes and they become soft, about 40 seconds. Wash the leaves with a sponge in water, and drain well.
  7. Cut pork into 36 pieces and set aside.
  8. Preheat the oven at 250 degrees Fahrenheit for ten minutes.
  9. Arrange salted duck egg yolks in a baking tray. Splash a bit of rice wine over egg yolks and bake for three minutes. This is just to remove the gamey flavor. Do not over bake, or the yolks will be dry.
  10. Heat the oil in a pot, add pork and stir-fry until the color changes.
  11. Add the dried shrimp and shiitakes, and cook for three minutes. Add the fried shallots, chestnuts (if using), soy sauce, two tablespoons rice wine, sugar, and chestnut/shiitake soaking water, plus two cups more water or enough to cover all the ingredients. Bring the pot to a boil, turn to low heat and simmer for ten minutes.
  12. Remove shiitakes, pork and chestnuts to another bowl and cool.
  13. Add rice and peanuts in the braised sauce; stir-fry over medium-low heat until sauce is absorbed. Allow to cool.

To wrap zongzi

  1. Start with two pieces of bamboo leaves. Overlap the smooth sides on top of each other and face toward you. Place the thick vein of the top leaf toward your right hand (for right-handed cooks, reverse for left-handed), and the thick vein of the bottom leaf toward your left hand.
  2. Hold the leaves horizontally. Fold the leaves at 1/3 point from your right-hand side to the left, and overlap over the other 2/3 part to make a cone shape.
  3. Place three tablespoons of rice in the cone and stuff pork, chestnuts, shiitake and salted egg yolk inside, then cover with rice loosely to the top edge of the cone.
  4. Fold the leaves tightly to cover the rice, then fold the protruding leaves over to the top triangle side to form a pyramid. Now you have four triangle sides.
  5. Tie the cotton twine on a hook. Take one piece of cotton twine, and wrap the zongzi at the middle of every triangle side against the grain of leaves, and tie a knot to secure the shape.

To cook zongzi

  1. Put the zongzi in a deep pot and fill with water to about eight inches over the zongzi.
  2. Bring the water to a boil over high heat and allow to simmer for three hours. If the water reduces under the zongzi during cooking, add more boiling water.
  3. Always keep the water level above the zongzi.
  4. If zongzi are cooked in a pressure pot, keep the water level just covering the zongzi. Follow the instructions of the pressure pot, and cook for about 40 minutes.

To make dipping sauce


  • 4 tablespoons soy sauce paste
  • ½ tablespoon sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • ½ tablespoon glutinous rice flour

Mix the above ingredients in a saucepan, bring to a boil and cook until thickened. Cool, and add fresh garlic purée if desired.


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