Zongzi (also known as rice dumpling) is traditionally eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival (Mandarin: Duanwu; Cantonese: Tuen Ng) which falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese calendar (approximately early to mid-June), commemorating the death of Qu Yuan, a famous Chinese poet from the kingdom of Chu who lived during the Warring States period. Known for his patriotism, Qu Yuan tried unsuccessfully to warn his king and countrymen against the expansionism of their Qin neighbors. When the Qin Dynasty general Bai Qi took Yingdu, the Chu capital, in 278 BC, Qu Yuan's grief was so intense that he drowned himself in the Miluo river after penning the Lament for Ying. According to legend, packets of rice were thrown into the river to prevent fish from eating the poet's body. Another version states that zongzi were given to placate a dragon that lived in the river.
The shape of zongzi range from being relatively tetrahedral in southern Chinese cultures to more cylindrical in northern Chinese cultures. Wrapping a zongzi neatly is a skill which is passed down through families, as are the recipes. Like tamale-making in Mexico and Pamonha-making in Brazil, making zongzi was traditionally a family event with everyone helping out.
While traditional Chinese zongzi are wrapped in bamboo leaves, the leaves of lotus, maize, banana, canna, shell ginger or pandan leaves are sometimes used as substitutes in other countries. Each kind of leaf imparts its own unique smell and flavor to the rice.
The fillings used for zongzi vary from region to region, but the rice used is always glutinous rice (also called sticky or sweet rice). Depending on the region, the rice may be lightly precooked by stir-frying or soaked in water before using.
Zongzi need to be steamed or boiled for several hours depending on how the rice is made prior to adding the fillings. Once cooked, the zongzi can easily be frozen for later consumption. Frozen zongzi are available for sale in many Chinese markets.