We are at the end of May and fast approaching the melting heat of Shanghai’s summertime! That of course means that we are also about to celebrate one of China’s most famous traditional holidays: the Dragon Boat Festival. This festival is famous abroad because of the image of the beautifully decorated dragon boats racing on rivers, however there are also several very special culinary traditions that we always look forward to every year. Especially because of the delicious traditional rice dumpling or zongzi!


You can learn more about the zongzi and how to make it at an organic farm at our Zongzi making event this Sunday, June 1st! Please head to our zongzi making event page for more information.


The Dragon Boat Festival is typically associated with the Chu kingdom poet Qu Yuan. Qu was a patriot who was rejected his king because he would not accept what he saw as a bad alliance with the neighboring Qin state. Years later, when the Qin captured the capitol of the Chu kingdom, Qu, in despair, committed suicide by throwing himself from a bridge. Tradition says that Qu’s fellow citizens loved him so much they raced out on dragon boats to save him, but when they couldn’t they threw zongzi into the water so that the fish would eat them instead of Qu’s body.

Dragon Boat Racing

As a result of this story, every Dragon Boat festival we eat zongzi to remember Qu Yuan and his sacrifice. Zongzi are sticky rice that’s wrapped in a bamboo leaf and stuffed with either sweet or savory ingredients such as jujubes, red bean paste, chestnuts, cooked peanuts, Chinese BBQ pork, chick, salted duck eggs or pork fat. They are then either steamed or boiled, depending on the region they are from.


Zongzi can come in two main shapes, 3-cornered or a tubular shape (more common in the south of China), although these days the three-cornered Zongzi are the most common.


A few other food items associated with the Dragon Boat Festival are realger wine and many kinds of herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine. They are not as closely associated with the story of Qu Yuan which made us wonder where they came from.


As it turns out, many researchers now believe that Dragon Boat Festival is actually just a modern version of a much older festival associated with the summer solstice. The Dragon Boat Festival falls on what was traditionally considered the first 7th day of the 5th month of the lunar calendar. At this time the sun was believed to be at its strongest so it was thought to be an important time to maximize resistance to disease. This is why many Chinese traditional medicinal herbs and realger wine (actually toxic because of its arsenic) were closely associated.


For us at Cook in Shanghai, this was an interesting surprise but we are glad that the day now focuses on the delicious Zongzi. Have you had zongzi before? Do you have a favorite kind? Join us in making zongzi on June 1st!