Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Dragon Boat Festival

Today is the 5th day of the 5th month of the lunar year; that means it is the day of the Dragon Boat Festival. In the Chinese lunar calendar, summer runs through the 4th, 5th, and 6th months, and 5/5 is a mid-summer festival. The official name is Duanwujie. Because it’s mid-summer, the poisonous snakes and insects are out (see my earliest posts about the airplane-sized mosquitoes in Taipei during the 1980s). One tradition is to wear colorful bags of silk that are filled with aromatic herbs to keep away poisonous beasties. These bags are called xiangbao. When I was first in Taiwan, I remember the street vendors selling them all over near my school. They were often animal-shaped; you could buy a tiger or a lion or a dragon. The silk bags were strung on a colored silk cord that you would hang around your neck. Other practices include hanging rushes and moxa plants over the doors to your home to keep out the noxious things. Some people drink Xiunghuang wine (rice wine with realgar) to keep summer illnesses and toxins from harming them.

The favorite food of the season is zongzi or sticky-rice tamales. The legend behind this food is that the poet Qu Yuan (343-290 BCE) of the kingdom of Chu got so depressed at the bad state of affairs in his country that he committed suicide by jumping into the river on Duanwujie. He hoped that his death would awaken the king and nobles to the fact that they were harming the country. The people who saw him jump raced out with boats to try to save him, but they were too late. They were unable to recover his body, so they dropped sticky-rice tamales into the river to keep the fish from eating the corpse and as a sacrificial offering to Qu Yuan’s spirit.

In the Liu family, Eldest Sister makes zongzi every year for friends and relatives. She makes a special kind of rice paste tamale with no added flavoring. Instead, you dip them in sugar or peanut powder or soy sauce, depending on your taste. Those kind can be eaten cold. In Taiwan, we also buy zongzi fresh at the market or from street vendors. They usually have sticky rice, a piece of pork, a piece of shitake mushroom, some other pickled vegetables, and a boiled egg yolk in them. They are wrapped in bamboo leaves, tied up with cotton string, and boiled until they’re cooked.

When Pa and Ma were living with us in the US about 10 years ago, we made our own zongzi. We got the bamboo leaves at the 99 Ranch Market. We half-cooked the sticky rice, par-boiled the pork, and soaked the shitake mushrooms. We also stir-fried the veggies to make them taste good. Then we folded the bamboo leaf into a triangle-shaped cone and put in a spoonful of the partially-cooked rice. We added our goodies and put another layer of rice on the top. Then we folded the rest of the bamboo leaf over to make a pyramid-shaped tamale and tied it all up with the cotton string. We tied the whole bunch together and boiled the tamales in the big wok. We stored them in the refrigerator and reheated them by steaming them or zapping them in the microwave for a minute or two. Definitely a delicious treat!

In southern China, where there are lots of streams and rivers, the people celebrate Duanwujie with dragon boat races; hence, the English name “Dragon Boat Festival.” The boat races commemorate the boats racing to save the poet Qu Yuan, and besides, water sports are great fun on a hot summer day. Dragon boat races are now popular outside of China, too. Here in Long Beach, we have our own dragon boat races in July or August ( They are not tied to the lunar calendar, and they do not occur on duanwujie, but they are a lot of fun.

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