The Dragon Boat Festival is one of the three great traditional Chinese celebrations that have been honored for thousands of years, the others two being Mid-Autumn Festival and Chinese New Year.
Many reasons are given for this summer holiday, which falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month (on June 23 in 2012). The two most popular explanations are, first, that it commemorates the day that the poet and official Qu Yuan committed suicide and, second, that it is a festivity in honor of China’s national symbol, the dragon. Even today, those Chinese who are more traditionally minded say they are the descendants of dragons, for many of China’s most ancient gods had bodies that were at least partially dragon-like.
So, both reasons are plausible, both are buried in the mists of history, and both have their fervent adherents. Two customs have been handed down to us from these separate camps and are now vital parts of the day’s celebrations: dragon boat races and rice tamales. The dragon boat races seem self-explanatory, but the tamales do need a bit of help.
Qu Yuan (340 to 278 B.C.) served during the late Warring States period and killed himself in desperation after his king banished him and other loyal courtiers due to the evil influence of corrupt advisers. It is said that Qu committed ritual suicide by sinking into a river while holding a heavy rock; the commoners who heard of this valiant man’s sacrifice ran to the river’s edge and threw bundles of rice into the water so the fish would not touch his body. (Some say the dragon boat races came about from the people trying to save him.) They were too late, but the tradition lingered on through the centuries.
This practice of making tamales and racing boats continues today, a celebration of patriotism and dragons, of food and culture, of fun and sacrifice — all the puzzle parts that make up the world that is China.
Shanghai’s sweet rice tamales
Hushi dousha hetao zong
Makes 16 small tamales
16 large dried bamboo leaves (zongye), plus a few extra just in case
1½ cups sweet round glutinous rice (Sho-chiku-bai brand recommended)
2 tablespoons roasted sesame oil
1 cup sweetened red bean paste, canned or homemade
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup chopped walnuts
Lots of cotton kitchen string
1. Soak the bamboo leaves in hot water until soft and green. Trim off about 1 inch from both ends, then wipe both sides of the leaves with a towel; cover the leaves to keep them moist. Place the rice in a strainer and rinse it under running water; drain.
2. Heat the sesame oil in a wok over medium-high heat until it begins to smell fragrant, and then add the bean paste, salt and walnuts. Stir-fry the bean paste to remove any canned taste and give it a nice creaminess. As soon as the bean paste is gently bubbling, scrape it into a small work bowl and let it cool to room temperature. Then, divide the bean paste into 16 pieces and roll each one into a little ball.
3. Bring about a gallon of water to boil in a 2-gallon pot while you are busy wrapping the tamales.
4. Fold a leaf as directed in the video, with the shiny side on the inside and a slight fold at the bottom to keep the rice from squirreling out. Use a spoon to place a scoop of the rice into the cone and place a bean paste ball on top. Scoop some more rice on top of the bean paste so it is completely covered.
5. When you fold the leaf ends over the cone, allow about a half-inch of slack in the fold so they are not tight. This will give the rice the chance to expand as it cooks and be light and fluffy. When you fold over the leaf ends onto the cone, shake the tamale a bit — you should hear a rattling noise, which means that you’ve wrapped it perfectly.
6. Give the tamale a bit of slack as you tie it up. The way to do this is to wrap the string around the tamale as gently as if you are tying a string around a baby’s wrist. Make the string hold the leaves flat against the tamale and keep the tamale in its desired shape, but don’t pull the string tight at any time.
7. To wrap the string Shanghai style, loop it lengthwise around the tamale a couple of times and then wrap it around the center in an even spiral. Tie the knot off and keep one string long so you can tie 6 to 8 tamales together.
8. When all the tamales have been filled and tied, lower them gently into the boiling water, cover the pot and boil them for about 5 minutes to set their shape. Then remove the cover, lower the heat to a simmer and cook the tamales for about 2 hours. Add more boiling water if needed to completely submerge the tamales, and check them at 15 minute intervals to make sure they don’t need more water.
9. Remove the tamales from the boiling water and drain. Eat them right away or cool down and store in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. To reheat, steam them until heated through.
Photo: Shanghai’s sweet rice tamales. Credit: Carolyn J. Phillips