I am very excited to share my parents' recipe for bamboo sticky rice!
I really had no idea how much effort and love goes into making these until I spent a weekend filming and learning how my parents make it.
I am very, very grateful that I get to eat these every year, and excited to do this with our kids when they get older.
Also known as "zongzi" in Mandarin or "joong" in Cantonese, there are a ton of variations across Asia, but at its core, it’s a pocket of sticky rice with delicious fillings, wrapped together in beautiful bamboo leaves.
The style of joong we’ll be learning today comes from Toisan, where my parents grew up. In their villages, my grandparents used to make this for my parents, and my parents still make this for us pretty much every year for the Dragon Boat Festival, which falls on the 5th day of the 5th month in the Chinese calendar.
A morbid but endearing origin story
Legend has it that these sticky rice dumplings were made as an offering to honor the death of Qu Yuan, a beloved Chinese patriot and poet, and a loyal advisor to the king.
One day, Qu Yuan was so upset with how his king ignored his advice in handling an impending invasion that he drowned himself in the Miluo River in 278 BC.
Accounts vary on how these dumplings came to be associated with Qu Yuan, but essentially, he was so endearing and loved by his people that they started making zongzi and throwing them into the river in his honor, every year.
From Smithsonian Mag:
For years after Qu Yuan’s death, his supporters threw rice in the water to feed his spirit, but the food, it was said, was always intercepted by a water dragon. (Master Chef Martin Yan, author and host of the pioneering Yan Can Cook TV show, suggests there may have been truth to this: “Some fresh water fish—like catfish—grow so huge that the Chinese considered them dragons.”)
After a couple of centuries of this frustration, Qu Yuan came back to tell the people to wrap the rice in leaves, or stuff it into a bamboo stalk, so the dragon couldn’t eat it. It was only generations later that people began to retroactively credit Qu Yuan’s erstwhile lifesavers with starting the rice-ball-tossing tradition.
And there you have it - the semi-sad but heartwarming story of sticky rice dumplings!