The Food Behind the Dragon

Everyone knows the racing dragons that invade local waterways each June. Some may have even tried zongzi, the holiday treat. but almost assuredly, almost no one knows how to make it—until now.


Firmly wrapped into fragrant bamboo leaves, rice dumplings, known as zongzi, are served one month before and after the Dragon Boat Festival—though it’s sold year-round. This heavy or light, salty or sweet, sticky and chewy delicacy has been favored by the descendants of the dragon for thousands of years. It’s not only for the holiday, but an easy-to-grab treat to enjoy anytime.

When dragon boating began over a thousand years ago, it was commonly believed to commemorate the banished poet Qu Yuan’s loyalty to his mother state. The artist, in a similar act to Socrates, self-fulfilled his own death penalty in protest of the country’s invasion.

To protect his floating body from hungry fish, residents took to the river and scattered rice-wrapped zongzi dumplings for the creatures to eat instead. Gradually, the dragon paddling was continued and evolved into races, while the zongzi developed into a favored snack.

Zongzi varies from place to place with different shapes and fillings. In the north, elongated, cone-shaped zongzi are filled with sweet red bean paste, served as a dessert. In the south, tetrahedral-shaped dumplings contain salty duck eggs, pork belly and green bean paste, lending to a more savory treat.

The preparation and process of making zongzi could last for days and require intensive work from several pairs of hands. The neat wrapping is a skill requiring a considerable amount of practice. Decades ago, making zongzi was a respected family activity involving everyone—from the old to young—that strengthened bonds. Each family member typically took home some zongzi in exchange for their efforts.

How to make Dongguan-style zongzi?
Although belonging to the southern, savory variety, a sizeable amount of sugar is also used, typical of Dongguan dishes. Larger Daojiao zongzi was popularized throughout the Pearl River Delta with a saltier flavor and double the filling.

The zongzi recipe below is provided by Guan Xiang Lou, one of the most famous water-front town cuisine restaurants in Dongguan.


  • Glutinous rice
    Salty duck egg (We recommend you buy dried salted duck egg yolk)
    Pork belly (half lean, half fat or full fat)
    Peeled green beans
    Bamboo leaves
    Cotton strings
    Five spice powder

All of these items are available at Guancheng’s New Guangming Market on Guangming Rd.

1. Soak glutinous rice in water for 2 hours. Mix with a reasonable amount of salt, sugar and peanut oil before starting to wrap.
2. If you buy regular salty duck eggs, remove the egg white and let sit for at least half an hour.
3. Slice the pork belly into a thumb-sized pieces. Marinate with five spice powder, sugar and a little bit of rice wine for 4-8 hours.
4. Soak the beans in water for at least 2 hours. Steam for another 2 hours. Use a wok (preferable), stir fry with peanut oil and garlic paste. Add sugar and salt, until creating a paste.
5. Cut the two ends of bamboo leaves to make them about 28 cm long. Soak in boiling water and leave for 8 hours. Wash each thoroughly.

The Wrapping
A_DSC025961. Take two leaves, put one on top of the other in a cross.


2. Hold the middle upper part, two thumbs press down and fold to create a point on the bottom. The deeper the point, the higher and sharper the zongzi will be. Place the point between your middle and ring finger. Hold firmly, prepare to fill the ingredients.


3. Place a thin layer of rice in the point. Grab a handful of bean paste and squeeze into an oval ball. Press a thumb in middle to create a space and place the bean paste on the rice. The hole is facing up.


4. Put the yolk in the hole, then put a piece of pork on top.
5. Cover the egg and meat with another ball of bean paste. Again, press a thumb in middle, concealing the items below.
6. Grab more rice and cover on top until the rice is parallel with the leaves. Even out the surface and make sure the fillings are full.


7. Close the zongzi by folding the leaves inward. Make sure it forms a square and no leaves are left outside. This side is the bottom of a zongzi and it should be a square.


8. Hold the leaves together with a thumb, take two overlapping leaves and wrap them on the side edge, fold in the excessive parts. Take another two leaves and wrap the other side. The wrapping must be tight and smooth.


9. Take a string and encircle around the zongzi as least six times, making sure it’s tight and the fillings can’t escape. Tie a knot on the bottom.


Boil the finished zongzi in water for at least 3 hours under mid-low heat. It’s preferable to heat them in a pressure cooker, but any deep pot will do. The zongzi must be completely submerged during the entire cooking process.

Cooked zongzi can stay in the fridge for up to 5 days and in the freezer for months. If you want to skip all the hard (fun) work, head to Guan Xiang Lou to try this traditional Wanjiang-style zongzi, instead.

Guan Xiang Lou 莞香楼
Address: No.1, Jintai Rd., Wanjiang