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Happy Dragon Boat Festival! Savory vs. Sweet Zongzi Showdown

Jun 09,2024 | eBest

For many ethnic-Chinese Australians, eating zongzi—also known as sticky rice dumplings—during the Dragon Boat Festival is as cherished a tradition as having turkey or shrimp for Christmas lunch, or a BBQ sausage on Australia Day. It’s a ritual steeped in history, and one your mum will undoubtedly remind you of with persistent phone calls. If you’re late to the Asian grocer on this day, chances are you’ll find the shelves bare of this beloved delicacy.
The Dragon Boat Festival, celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar (falling on June 10 this year), commemorates the legendary poet Qu Yuan, who drowned himself in protest against political corruption. To honor him, locals threw rice dumplings into the river to prevent fish from eating his body. Thus, zongzi was born. This triangular or rectangular package of glutinous rice, stuffed with various fillings and wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves, is now a staple of the festival, providing a flavorful and aromatic experience once steamed or boiled. 

In recent years, a more contemporary debate has emerged online, sparking friendly battles among families and friends: Should zongzi be sweet or savory?

The Great Debate: Sweet vs. Savory Zongzi

Northerners in China will tell you savory zongzi is the way to go, while southerners insist on the sweetness of their zongzi. This debate amusingly flips the general flavor preference rule of "Sweet South, Salty North."

For Australian Yum Cha enthusiasts, savory fillings might seem more familiar, resembling the beloved "Lo Mai Gai” (Dim Sum Sticky Rice Chicken). Here are some popular savory zongzi fillings:

● Pork  Belly: This classic filling is marinated with soy sauce, five-spice powder, and other seasonings, resulting in a rich, flavorful dumpling.

● Salted  Egg Yolk: Often paired with pork or other meats, salted egg yolk adds a creamy texture and a slightly salty taste.

● Ham and Chestnut: Ham seasoned with soy sauce and earthy chestnut create a  delightful combination.

On the sweet side, popular fillings include:

● Red Bean Paste: Smooth and sweet, red bean paste provides a pleasant contrast to the chewy rice.

● Jujube (Red Date): Naturally sweet jujube pairs beautifully with the sticky rice.

● Osmanthus with Sweet Lotus: Braised lotus roots, delicately honeyed, and sweet      scented with the ethereal and floral perfume of the wonderful osmanthus flower.

● The "Eight Treasures": A mixture of whole grains, nuts, and dried fruits, symbolizing good luck and prosperity.

Many local Chinese restaurants have elevated zongzi, offering signature versions for diners and take-out consumers. Some feature luxury ingredients like abalone, scallop, and truffle, while others stick to tradition, using lye water or alkaline water to achieve the distinctive yellow hue of the dough.

How to Enjoy Zongzi

Zongzi is best enjoyed warm, whether steamed or boiled. For a quick - or lazy-fix, cover it with cling wrap and microwave for a few minutes until thoroughly warmed.

And a final tip—don’t laugh—remember not to eat the wrap or string! Enjoy zongzi as it is, or enhance the flavours by dipping savory versions in soy sauce or sprinkling a bit of sugar on sweet ones.

Thanks to our vibrant multicultural communities and their commitment to preserving traditions, we can enjoy zongzi not only during the Dragon Boat Festival but year-round, inspiring a taste of history with every bite.

Happy Dragon Boat Festival!