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Dragon Boat Festival & Zongzi Recipe

Dragon Boat

Long weekend ahead of us! Before you're leaving the apartment, you should better know what this festival is about.

There are many competing explanations for Duanwu Jie, the Dragon Boat Festival, which falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar. All involve some combination of dragons, spirits, loyalty, honor and food—some of the most important traditions in Chinese culture.

“Usually Chinese festivals are explained by the traumatic death of some great paragon of virtue”

And so the story goes with Qu Yuan, an advisor in the court of Chu (was a hegemonic, Zhou dynasty era state, early 8th century BC). He was a wise and erudite man. His ability and fight against corruption antagonized other court officials. They exerted their evil influence on the emperor, so the emperor gradually dismissed Qu Yuan and eventually exiled him.

During his exile, Qu Yuan did not give up. He traveled extensively, taught and wrote about his ideas. It was at this time that Qu Yuan became a true poet, writing many beautiful poems about Chu, including one called ‘Li Sao’ – also known as The Lament.

And when he heard that the Chu State was defeated by the strong Qin State, he was so despaired that he ended his life by flinging himself into the Miluo River.

Legend says after people heard he drowned, they were greatly dismayed. Fishermen raced to the spot in their boats to search for his body, while banging the drums and hitting the water. Unable to find his body, people threw zongzi, eggs and other food into the river to so that the fish would eat the rice and leave the body of the poet in peace. Since then, people commemorated Qu Yuan through dragon boat races, eating zongzi and other activities on the anniversary of his death, the fifth of the fifth month.

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Here is a sample of a famous poem that is said to have been written by Qu Yuang during his time in exile.

Li Sao (The Lament)

Had I not loved my prime and spurned the vile,
Why should I not have changed my former style?
My chariot drawn by steeds of race divine
I urged; to guide the king my sole design.

To make sense of how the dragon gets into the story, or indeed of the boats carved with dragons on them, we need to go back further in time—more than 6,000 years ago, the earliest dated figure of a dragon found within the boundaries of modern China.

“One of the most important mythical creatures in Chinese mythology, the dragon is the controller of the rain, the river, the sea, and all other kinds of water; symbol of divine power and energy. In the imperial era it was identified as the symbol of imperial power. In people’s imaginations, dragons usually live in water and are the controllers of rain.”


Interesting facts

1) Dragon Boat Racing is the fastest water sport activity in the world today.

2) Dragon boat racing has been in China for over 2,000 years.

3) Dragon boat racing is practiced in over 50 countries in the world.

Dragon Boat

Dragon Boat

For everybody who ever thought of making Zongzi by themselves.
Preparation for this Zongzi recipe is relatively easy, except for the actual time commitment and the step of actually wrapping the Zongzi. Some people can wrap these babies with speed and ease, but for others, it can devolve into mission impossible-level fumbling. But with a little practice, and our step-by-step instructions, you’ll be folding them properly in no time. And as far as size and shape are concerned, let’s say there is no right or wrong—as long as it’s wrapped tight and does not open up during cooking, it’s a success!!!

Here’s the full list of ingredients you’ll need. We’ll break it down for you to prepare each component.


To prepare the Zongzi leaves:

First, soak the leaves overnight. The next day, wash and rinse each leaf front and back, keeping them in a large bowl or tub of water until wrapping time so they don’t dry out.

Dragon Boat

To prepare the sweet rice:

Soak the sweet rice overnight. The next day, drain completely in a colander. Mix the soaked, uncooked rice with light soy sauce and salt in a large bowl and set aside.

Dragon Boat

To prepare the peanuts:

  • 2/3 cup of raw peanuts

Soak the peanuts overnight. The next day, boil for 5 minutes, drain, and set aside.

To prepare the pork belly:

  • 1 pound pork belly, cut into 12 equal pieces
  • 2 teaspoons light soy sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 2 teaspoons shaoxing wine
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
  • 1 teaspoon oil
  • 1/2 cup water

In a bowl, toss the pork belly with the light soy sauce, sugar, shaoxing wine, salt, and white pepper. Marinade overnight. The goal of this step is to make the pork belly slightly too salty, because the rice will absorb the excess salt, giving the Zongzi its distinctive savory, umami flavor.

Heat the oil in a wok over medium heat. Cook the pork belly for a few minutes before adding the water. Cover the wok with the lid, and cook for 5-10 minutes until the liquid is gone. Remove from the wok and let cool.

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To prepare the additional ingredients:

Cut the egg yolks in half. Cut the sausages into 12 equal pieces. Set aside in separate bowls.

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Dragon Boat


Wrapping the Zongzi:

Woo! Good job. Now you are all set to wrap these little bundles of deliciousness. We’ve provided step-by-step photos for how to wrap the Zongzi below.

Before you start, there are a few things to remember:

  • You must use kitchen shears to cut away at least half an inch off the bottom of every leaf where the leaf stem is since can easily puncture your precious Zongzi while wrapping.
  • Make sure the kitchen twine won’t break easily. To do this, it’s best to wet the twine first by soaking it in a bowl of water.
  • It’s best to tie one end of the twine to an anchor point or kitchen fixture (e.g. you kitchen sink), because you will only have one hand to tie the Zongzi. Your other hand will be holding the Zongzi. Or have someone help you out! Making Zongzi is like making a big batch of dumplings or Wontons—all hands on deck! Just make sure that the newbies are holding the strings and the seasoned pros are doing the folding! Hah!
  • If leaves rip anywhere during the wrapping process, you’ll need to start over and discard the ripped leaf. That’s why I call for more leaves than is technically needed. Some of the leaves are bound to get ripped.

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Start by layering a couple leaves together and folding up the bottom to create a cone.

Dragon Boat

Fill with a little rice on the bottom, along with your egg yolk, peanuts, pork belly, and Chinese sausage.

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Top with a bit more rice.

Fold the two sides into the middle lengthwise, cupping your hands at the bottom of the cone so it doesn’t fall apart.

Dragon Boat

Pinch the leaves at the top so you get a tight seal.

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Fold the leaves down.

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And tie the Zongzi securely. Just get it tightly sealed. Doesn’t have to be pretty. Cut off the excess on the leaves with your trusty kitchen shears.

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And that’s it! Now do it a bunch more times until your leaves and filling are used up.

Dragon Boat

To cook the Zongzi:

Get a medium-sized pot and neatly nest the Zongzi inside, avoiding large gaps. Put a large plate directly on top of the Zongzi to weigh them down. Fill the pot with cold water, until the Zongzi are submerged. Place the pot on the stove over medium high heat. Once the water boils, turn the heat to low/medium-low, and let it simmer for at least 7-8 hours.

The water should be “moving” while simmering, but there should be no large roiling bubbles. You must check the pot fairly often to make sure the Zongzi are always submerged in water. Only add boiling water to adjust the water level—do not add room temperature or cold water. Keep a kettle of hot water on the stove so that you’re prepared throughout the 7-8 hour cooking time.

Once the 7-8 hours is up, eat the Zongzi while they’re hot! Sweet Zongzi can be enjoyed at room temperature, but savory Zongzi are really the best when they’re steamy and delicious.

Dragon Boat

Some useful tips for enjoying your zongzi:

  • To eat, simply cut the twine and unwrap the leaves to reveal the Zongzi inside.
  • Zongzis can be frozen after they cool to room temperature. To reheat, first defrost the Zongzi by taking it out of the freezer a few hours prior to cooking time. Re-boil the Zongzi in water for 15-20 minutes.
  • Zongzi are usually served as is, but who’s gonna stop you from eating them with your favorite chili sauce? No one, that’s who!
  • Finally, if you’re just over this whole “wrap them in a leaf” thing, you can alternatively steam the rice in a bamboo steamer. Simply line the steamer with the bamboo leaves, cut away the excess, fill with rice, and all your toppings, and steam for about an hour or so until done, longer if you like a more softer texture. It’s not traditional, but it’s definitely the lazy man’s way out!


(The recipe was originally from


Rebecca Andresen

Rebecca Andresen

I try to give some practical advice but I also try to dispel some of the myths floating around about expat life. I'm a third culture kid as well so I try to share that experience and how it affects my life as an expat or living overseas.
This is my 14th year of being an expat in China and in all kind of forms - child, teenager, student, spouse and working.
Rebecca Andresen

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