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Zongzi: Savory vs. Sweet

Written by Peter Allen on . Posted in food

Tired of making the same old meals over and over again? Have the urge to make something foreign, delicious and fancy? If so, then it’s time to make some zong zi!

Zongzi is a Chinese dish made with glutinous rice, also known as sticky rice or sweet rice. The glutinous rice encloses a filling that can be either sweet or savory—meaty or vegetarian. The rice encasing is then wrapped with bamboo leaves and boiled before consumption.

This meal is actually not the easiest to make, especially when it is your first time. But once you get the hang of making it (after you are captivated by this delicious food), the process will become second nature. Just be aware that if you’re looking for a quick and easy meal that isn’t going to take hours to get ready, you may want to steer clear of this sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaf.

So why should you make zongzi? 

Because: it’s awesome, it has a festival named after it, and then, because it doesn’t matter if you are a vegetarian or not—it’s enjoyable by carnivores and herbivores alike. You get the option to pick your preferred filling, may that be a filling with meat or a filling with no meat. Both options are equally delightful.

You’re welcome to get creative with the filling; just be sure to follow the basics when you’re still learning the process. If it’s your first time, it’s a good idea to try out the traditional Chinese glutinous rice dumpling. Before we go any further, let’s have a little history class field trip.

Zongzi’s History

Zongzi (Chinese: 粽子), as you probably thought right, originated in China. Though the exact time the dish came into existence is not known, it gained wide popularity when it became the official food of the Duanwu festival, so it’s safe to assume that the meal was a preexisting one that was already loved.

Duanwu festival, also known as the Dragon Boat festival and sometimes as Zongzi festival, is held on the 5th day of May according to the Chinese calendar. This date varies annually in the Gregorian calendar due to the differences between the calendar systems. The festival is held to remember Qu Yuan, a Chinese poet in the era of the Warring States.

The poet was famous for his patriotism—he tried his best to warn his kingdom’s emperor, Chu, about a neighboring kingdom. His warning was not adhered to and unfortunately, when the kingdom’s capital was captured, he drowned himself in the Miluo river.

After a failed attempt to retrieve his body, packets of rice were poured into the river. This was done to prevent fish from feeding on his body. A sad story.

The modern day festival shares two features with the time of his death: First, there’s the zongzi, made of Chinese sticky rice. Secondly, there’s the dragon boat race. The dragon boat race stems from the historical detail that a number of boats went out to the river in search of Qu Yuan’s body. See the relationship now?

Sure you do.

Now, back to this Chinese sticky rice. Southern and Northern Chinese people both indulge themselves in this dish; however, there’s a huge difference when it comes to their zongzi.

The northern Chinese people make zongzi that’s so sweet that it could serve as a dessert. Their filling is devoid of meat and full of red bean paste. Some might even have tapioca or taro.

On the other hand, the southern zongzi is savory and a little bit salty. The filling consists of marinated pork belly (though chicken could be used), shiitake mushrooms, and salted duck egg, amidst other ingredients.

So basically, we have two types of this leaf wrapped rice—savory leaf wrapped rice and sweet leaf wrapped rice. Soon enough, you’ll know how to make both types. There are some people who prefer to make this dish without any filling, just plain rice. Definitely not something I’d fancy, but it exists, and strangely, some people love it.

Getting Started with Homemade Sticky Rice

Making this sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaf takes a whole lot of time and it could get really frustrating, and that’s mainly when you get to the part where you have to wrap the rice up. A few ingredients, like the glutinous rice and bamboo leaves, have to be soaked for a really long while, nothing less than 4 hours (or you could just soak them overnight).

To greatly reduce the hours needed for soaking, the ingredients are sometimes stir-fried, and this teases out their flavor. When broken down, the process of making zongzi consists of 3 basic steps.

1. The first step involves the preparation of the ingredients. To make the savory leaf wrapped rice version, the glutinous rice, shiitake mushrooms, and bamboo leaves should be soaked overnight while the pork belly should be cut into small chunks and also marinated overnight for a deeper savory flavor.

For the northern sweet version, soak the glutinous rice, red beans, and bamboo leaves overnight. The essence of soaking the bamboo leaves is to make them pliable and easier to fold.

This step could be overlooked if you can get fresh bamboo leaves.

If you’re worried that the bamboo leaves are not fresh enough, then soak them in order to avoid any mishap. The leaves can be soaked in hot water for 30 minutes before transferring to cold water. After soaking, stir-fry the ingredients individually. This process is totally optional but if you aren’t soaking overnight, this step will come in handy.

Tip: Keep your leaves in water until you are ready to use them. This will prevent them from drying up—sometimes, the weather works against us.

2. Bring together the ingredients, then wrap. Wrapping, as mentioned earlier, can be quite tricky, but it gets really easy once you have practiced a bit. The zongzi is not the only dish that is wrapped with bamboo leaves: there are others, and if, like me, you’ve already encountered another dish that needed to be wrapped, then lucky you!

It’s time to bring that knowledge to your kitchen again.

I spent a good part of my childhood watching my grandma wrap dishes with bamboo leaves (she’s a huge fan of dishes that are wrapped with bamboo leaves). I had many failed attempts; I was always in a hurry to get the thing wrapped…though that’s not beneficial when you’re learning how to wrap.

And that brings us to the most important leaf-wrapping tip for a beginner—patience. Take your time and relax. You might not get it right at first, but with a little bit of patience, you will get there.

There are two ways to wrap the zongzi to produce either the triangle or the pyramid shape, and I’ve included a small section down below that will teach you how to wrap the leaves perfectly.

The pyramid shape takes up more leaves.

Basically, make a hollow with your leaves, add the rice, then the filling, and finally the rice again. Tie the wrapped Chinese sticky rice with a string. Your wrapped Chinese sticky rice can be linked together with the strings to make a bunch. If that sounds too stressful for you (it actually isn’t), you can leave them tied individually.

3. After wrapping up the Chinese sticky rice, the next step is to cook them. To cook the flavorful dumplings, you have the option of either steaming or boiling. I usually prefer boiling to steaming as it makes the rice a bit softer and moister.

When boiling, there is a probability of the fillings spilling out of the wrappings if the dumplings are not properly secured. Just like me, most people usually boil as boiling takes less time to cook, just about 2 hours. Now, with steaming, the rice is chewier and stickier, so little moisture gets in.

Steaming takes about 4 hours to cook depending on the size of your dumplings. For this method, some people employ the use of the popular multi-function pressure cooker which significantly reduces the cooking time to about 35 to 40 minutes as opposed to the 4 hours it would normally take. Ah! the thrill of having a fast-cooking pressure cooker; totally in love with that!

Savory and Sweet Zongzi Recipes

For those curious about the ingredients for both versions (savory or sweet) of our delectable zongzi, this is especially for you.

Ingredients for the savory zongzi

  • 4 cups of glutinous rice (sweet rice).
  • 2 to 3 pieces of shiitake mushrooms.
  • 150 grams of pork belly, cut into small pieces or chunks.
  • 1 tablespoon of light soy sauce.
  • 1/2 tablespoon of Shaoxing cooking rice wine.
  • 1/2 teaspoon of Chinese five-spice powder.
  • 1 pinch of white pepper.
  • 1/4 teaspoon of salt.
  • 1/4 teaspoon of sugar (optional).
  • 3 slices of ginger, cut into tiny strips (optional).
  • 24 dried bamboo leaves, with the two ends trimmed. It is also known as zongye. You will need a pair (two leaves) of bamboo leaves for each dumpling. I recommend you have extra for use in case any of the leaves break during the wrapping process.
  • 12 cooking strings (cotton twine, should be around 3 ft. long). Two for each of your tasty dumplings.
  • 6 salted duck egg yolks, split into halves.

Ingredients for the sweet Zongzi

  • 4 cups of glutinous rice.
  • 6 tablespoons of red bean paste (also known as adzuki beans paste).
  • 2 tablespoons of red beans (also known as adzuki beans).
  • 6 dates, the seeds removed.
  • 24 dried bamboo leaves, two ends trimmed.
  • 12 cooking strings (cotton twine, around three feet long). Two for each tasty dumpling.
  • Honey or brown sugar (optional, this is used for serving).

Instructions

Preparing the savory zongzi version: The glutinous rice, shiitake mushrooms, and dried bamboo leaves should be soaked overnight. The pork belly should be cut into small chunks and mixed with the shaoxing rice wine, white pepper, Chinese five spice powder and salt, marinated overnight for a deeper-savoring flavor.

The rice should be rinsed several times and then drained before being soaked overnight. After the overnight soaking, place the rice, marinated pork and shiitake mushrooms into different bowls and prepare to wrap them up. The section on assembling the dumplings will help you with this.

Preparing the sweet zongzi: The glutinous rice, red beans, and dried bamboo leaves should be soaked and left overnight. After this, bring them out and prepare to wrap them up. Put the rice and red beans into different bowls.

Assembling the dumplings:

When assembling the dumplings, you can make them in a triangle shape or a pyramid shape. Allow me to take you on a little journey detailing how to wrap up the savory zongzi in both shapes (triangle and pyramid).

Triangle shape: Place two bamboo leaves so that they overlap to give the image of a narrow cone. Scoop some quantity of the overnight rice into the cone. Then, put a piece or two of the marinated pork belly on top of the rice before adding your shiitake mushrooms, ginger, and the salted duck-egg yolk. Add more tablespoons of the glutinous rice to cover the filling.

Using your right hand, bring the leaf’s empty end across the glutinous rice filled cup, then curve the leaf over the edges and beyond the cup. Ensure the tips of the leaf extend a bit beyond the heel and carefully tie the string around the zongzi, starting from the right end working toward the left.

Take care not to tie the strings too tightly to give room for the package to expand while it’s cooking. Ensure that the filling is completely enclosed by the glutinous rice on all sides to prevent spilling.

Pyramid shape: To do this, the two bamboo leaves need to be overlapped to make the letter X. Make a wide cone in the middle and add a few tablespoons of glutinous rice in it, then add the marinated pork belly, shiitake mushrooms, julienned ginger, and salted duck-egg yolk over the rice.

Add more rice to enclose the fillings and make it level. Bend the two ends of the bamboo leaves towards the middle. Then use two other leaves to carefully conceal the two edges. Finally, bind in the opposite direction of the latter pair of leaves with a cooking string.

For the sweet type,  follow the same instructions as that for the savory type.

The only difference is the ingredients: put the date in the cone made by the leaves, then add two teaspoons of glutinous rice. Place a tablespoon of the red bean paste and top that with an additional two or three teaspoons of rice, then add your whole red beans.

Bend the two ends of the bamboo leaf over the rice and fold the top of the leaf downwards to completely conceal the rice. Wrap the remainder of the leaf around in a triangle shape and bind this with your cooking string. Follow the same assembly process when doing the pyramid shape.

Cooking

The last step of this recipe—put the zongzi in a pot small enough to allow them to nestle against each other. Fill the pot with water to completely cover the zongzi. Leave the water to boil for a while then allow it to simmer for 2 and a half hours. Check the water level regularly. If it has reduced, top up the pot again to make sure the zongzi are always under the water.

Most people put down a heavy plate or flat stone to keep the zongzi from floating about but it really isn’t necessary to do that. They’ll sink to the bottom after about 5 minutes of being boiled in water.

Serving: The meal can be served while both warm and cold, though it is best served warm. Brown sugar or honey can be used as dipping for a sweeter, more unique taste if you so prefer.

Leftover zongzi can be stored for 3 days in the fridge and up to 2 months if in the freezer. Keep them in a ziplock bag or any other airtight container. To reheat, place the zongzi in a pot of boiling water and allow them to heat for 3 to 5 minutes.

Note: There are many variations of this dish. Apart from the two types of filling ingredients mentioned, there are other filling ingredients options. Jianshui zong is a variation that can be served plain—no filling—or it can be filled with only red bean paste. The rice used for Jianshui zong is treated with potassium carbonate, giving them their remarkable yellow color.

The jia zong is another variation that’s stickier and smaller in size, the reason being that in place of the glutinous rice, globs of glutinous rice flour is used to conceal the fillings. There are other variations but that’s a good start for now.

Zongzi is a delicious treat—why don’t you make some right now?!

Peter Allen

Peter Allen

Peter's path through the culinary world has taken a number of unexpected turns. After starting out as a waiter at the age of 16, he was inspired to go to culinary school and learn the tricks of the trade. As he delved deeper, however, his career took a sudden turn when a family friend needed someone to help manage his business. Peter now scratches his culinary itch on the internet by blogging, sharing recipes, and socializing with food enthusiasts worldwide.

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