Growing up in South Africa and being the only Asian kid in class wasn’t always easy, particularly when it came to meal time. My Korean mom always lovingly packed a little tin box with her delicious Korean and Chinese lunches, but I always dreaded opening it because inevitably one of the kids would lean over my shoulder, peer at whatever exotic item I had and ask snidely, “What are you eating?!”

The most embarrassing food she packed was zhongzi, a savory rice dumpling wrapped in bamboo leaves. Although it’s delicious, it also probably looked pretty bizarre to the other students. I so envied the white kids with their little sandwiches with the crusts cut off. And one year, to avoid being made fun of, I actually told my mom that I wasn’t hungry and didn’t want lunch.

Surprisingly, she agreed to stop packing me a lunch, but when lunchtime came I could feel my stomach growling and began to think about my zhongzi at home. Then one day, a little girl named Abigail noticed I was hungry and started sharing her Vegimite sandwich with me for lunch. Then one day my older brother caught me eating the sandwich and accused me of lying to my mom. After he told on me, my mom called me over and said, “That’s so nice of Abigail, why don’t you bring her a zhongzi tomorrow for lunch?”

The Dragon Boat Festival, which fell on June 9 this year, is one of the biggest holidays in the Chinese diaspora. The festival commemorates the death of the poet and government minister Qu Yuan, who lived from 340 to 278 BC during the Warring State period of the Zhou Dynasty. According to conventional history, when the Zhou king allied with the Qin state, Qu was banished to exile for opposing the alliance. Out of deep sorrow, the patriotic poet drowned himself in the Milou River.

It is said that the villagers of Zhou raced out on the river in boats to find Qu’s body. But when they couldn’t find him, they came together and made rice dumplings wrapped inside bamboo leaves to feed the fish in the river in order to prevent them from eating Qu’s body. In another version of the story, Qu killed himself after his love was rejected by the king. Whatever the real story was, the tradition of racing dragon boats, wearing colorful perfumed medicine pouches and eating zhongzi continues to this day.

Zhongzi come in different varieties but are traditionally made with glutinous rice, dried shrimp, five spice, pork belly, peanuts and cured egg yolks. There’s also a dessert version which is either made with sweet glutinous rice or tapioca with bean or fruit filling. Most people don’t make their own zhongzi anymore as it’s more convenient to buy them freshly made at the wet market.

However, my mother has always made her own zhongzi and while it’s not the most traditional kind, it’s the most delicious zhongzi in my opinion. So this week I’d like to share with you my mother’s zhongzi recipe to celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival.


(Makes 8 to 10 zhongzi)
For the braised pork:
12 lb. pork shoulder
34 cup dark soy sauce
3 cups water
8 to 10 shiitake mushrooms
1 Tbsp. raw sugar
3 star anise
14 tsp. five spice
1 tsp. olive oil
4 to 5 hard-boiled eggs
For the rice:
212 cups short-grain white rice
13 cup olive oil
1 cup shallots
512 cup water
20 bamboo leaves (available at Asian grocery stores)


Start by cutting up the pork into one- to two-inch chunks and soak the mushrooms in warm water for five minutes. In a non-stick skillet on high heat sear the pork with olive oil for two minutes until it’s golden brown. Mix in the soy sauce and sugar and cook for another 30 seconds. (photo 1)

Now transfer the pork into a deep pot. Add in the mushrooms, hard-boiled eggs, star anise, five spice and water. Bring it to a boil and then turn it down to low heat. Let it cook for two hours. (photo 2)

For the rice, cut shallots into small dices. Then on medium high heat, stir-fry them in 13 cup olive oil for two minutes until they are golden brown.

Stir in the rice and let it cook for 1 minute. (photo 3) Then add in 512 cups water, turn heat down to medium low, keep stirring until most of the water is reduced. (photo 4) This will take 10 to 12 minutes. Then turn the heat down to low, cover it up and let it cook for another 10 minutes. Once the rice is cooked, set it aside until the braised pork is ready.

After two hours, the pork should be very tender. Ladle 23 cup of the braised juice into the rice and mix to combine.

Now for the assembling. Wash and soak the bamboo leaves for at least ten minutes. Stack two bamboo leaves on top of each other, fold the two ends together to create a cone, then stuff the rice, egg, pork and mushrooms into the leaves. Cover the rice up with the excess leaf, then tie up the zhongzi with butcher twine. Steam the zhongzi for ten minutes on high heat. (photos 5, 6, 7)

You may also skip this step and just mix the pork, eggs and mushrooms in the rice. Although it would not be considered a zhongzi, it is just as delicious this way. But I do highly recommend wrapping it up in the bamboo leaves because the leaves give the rice a unique fragrance after it’s steamed. Zhongzi are often served with hot sauce. You can keep them in the refrigerator for two weeks or in the freezer up to three months. They heat up nicely in the microwave. (photo 8)

Enjoy! For more recipes, visit www.thewayriceshouldbe.blogspot.com