I was talking to a friend yesterday when I realized how woefully bad my grasp of Chinese culture actually is (despite being an EALAC minor!). The topic of 粽子 (Chinese rice triangles) came up, and after a while, I realized that I had no clue what exactly Chinese people were celebrating, or why they were wrapping stupid rice balls, tying them together, and tossing them into a river. I mean honestly, if I told you I was gonna make food, bind it all together, and throw it into a large body of water, all whilst smiling like an idiot, you'd swear I was nuts too. Anyway, I thought I'd take the time to explain both zongzi and the story behind the history of making them.
Turns out, a poet named 屈原 (Qu Yuan), who lived during the warring states period, tried to warn his nation about an imminent invasion. When they didn't listen, and were ultimately defeated, he killed himself (out of shame/patriotism?). Since everyone loved him so dearly, they made rice balls, and stuffed them inside leaves to hold the rice together, then threw them into the river so the fish wouldn't eat his body. I guess that's kind of
As for zongzi, most people are familiar with the traditional kind. They're made of glutinous rice, and hold salty fillings of pork, egg yolk, and more often times than not, some form of salted veggies. Alternatively, the vegetarian parallel would use turnips or radishes in place of meat. What my grandmother made though, are 碱水粽 (Jian Shui Zong), which are zongzi made with glutinous rice + lye water. The end result is a yellowish rice that ends up binding together into a much smoother matrix. It's chewier, it's stickier, and is more of a pain to unwarp, but you're rewarded with a dessert type zongzi. Savory fillings are shunned in favor of either red bean, lotus, taro, or other sweet pastes, although they are often unfilled and eaten plain with sugar syrups. To be honest, I don't know that much about them past that. I did try making one, but it came out looking demented, so clearly my knowledge of the subject only extends as far as eating them.
Anyway, hope someone finds this interesting (I did). I feel like a better Asian for knowing it haha.