Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Seven Pony-Tailed Heads

This week was Dragon Boat Festival。That is a time when, after months of practice, people race a boat called 龙舟long zhou – literally dragon boat and it occurs on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month. No surprise that it is called the Double Fifth Celebration. The boat – actually a skiff, is a long, light water craft traditionally found around Asia. A typical crew consists of 20 rowers, a steersman and one drummer to set the pace for the rowers. Come festival time the boats are decorated with dragon heads and they are painted in vivid colors: red, blue, green and gold. Come race time, the rowers also wear colorful costumes to reflect their team membership. It is quite a spectacle! For practice they just use an ordinary skiff and wear ordinary clothing. The only feature that stays is the drummer… and of course, the rowers.

As with all festivals in China, Dragon Boat Festival has its traditional food, called 粽子 – zong zi, pronounced dzong dzuh. It is a dumpling made of glutinous rice surrounding either a meat or a sweet filling, such as a date or red bean paste, and is wrapped in a bamboo leaf and steamed until the rice binds. There is a certain measure of skill in the making of zong zi, and that is what this blog is all about.

But first I want to tell you the origin of the festival.

Two thousand years ago, the poet 屈原 – Qu Yuan, pronounced Chew Yuan was an advisor to the emperor’s cabinet and much loved by the people. Unfortunately the Emperor did not want to listen to the great poet and he drove the country to ruin. Qu Yuan, not being able to stand his beloved country being brought asunder by the greedy and stubborn emperor, pitched himself into the river in a fit of agony. The people started throwing rice into the river so that the fish would not eat Qu Yuan’s body. Fishermen ran their boats up and down the river in an effort to distract the fish from eating the body as well.

Now you know why Chinese race boats and eat rice dumplings on Festival Day even though, by now, I’m sure Qu Yuan’s body is no longer relevant. They no longer throw rice in the river, though.

But what of the 7 pony-tailed heads?

Well, there were actually more than 7 pony-tailed heads at my house that night. We were discussing Dragon Boat Festival and what-all it entails in class, and I asked my students if anyone knew how to make Zong Zi. Several of the girls averred that they do in fact know how to make them, and volunteered to teach me. What a great learning opportunity for me, and what a great theme for our End of Year party! We scheduled the party for the week before Dragon Boat Day.

I had barely hung the lights up in the living room and gotten the refreshments ready when, all in a crowd the kids descended upon my apartment. Like a whirlwind they took over my kitchen, going through everything I had laid out, purchased or otherwise prepared and arguing about the best way to chop the meat, soak the rice, fill and steam the dumplings and what we should serve them on.
It was actually quite comical. Rita, from Outer Mongolia province had a different way of chopping meat than did Nemo, who is from an Eastern province. Vivien, whose mother was apparently more strict than all the other girls’ mothers, kept cautioning the others to proper kitchen etiquette. Pharchenal liked sweet dumplings and wondered if we would make any, or were we making only meat dumplings? Maggie didn’t think there would be enough food so she and Grace went to the local market and bought several bags of pre-made foods like regular dumplings for boiling and buns for steaming.

Apparently Maggie and Grace hadn’t noticed my kitchen’s limitations. With my one hotplate, we could only produce one food at a time. And that created another set of problems. Were we making Zong Zi and having snacks or cooking a meal for all to enjoy?

Suddenly, Rita, Vivien, Nemo and Pharchenal found themselves shunted aside so that Maggie, Grace and Rockrose could take over the kitchen to make a meal. The Zong Zi making became secondary, and that caused them to argue even louder than before, this time with the bossy Maggie/Grace team instead of with each other. The rest of the students in the living room clamored for a meal.

I stood there non-plussed. I don’t know what I was expecting… maybe a nice, quiet, step-by-step demonstration of how to make Zong Zi. Maybe I would even get to make one or two myself. I was genuinely curious and wanted to learn, but there was no learning opportunity in my kitchen that night. I never even got to touch a bamboo leaf. There were only photo opportunities. So I took pictures of the seven pony tailed heads that were leading their fierce debates over the proper way to make, wrap and tie Zong Zi as well as the proper way to steam buns and dumplings. And, let’s not forget about the argument over who was dominant in my kitchen: Zong Zi makers or steamed buns and dumplings?

Picture it: water everywhere. Glutinous rice, soaking in a bowl on the window ledge which is now not accessible to the ones who needed the glutinous rice. Steam flowing from the wok on the hotplate. A pound of bacon, chopped and marinating in a bowl too close to the electronic hotplate and risking ruination. People popping in from the living room with chopsticks in their hands, wondering when the next batch of food would be ready to eat.

Do you see why I say it was quite comical?

As suddenly as the activity started it ended. All of the dumplings and steamed buns had been eaten, all of the snacks and most of the beverages had been consumed. A group of students, led by Maggie started cleaning the living room and another group, led by Pharchenal cleaned the kitchen. I’m still standing around, trying to get a word in edgewise. By 9PM, everyone had left my house.

Somehow, twelve Zong Zi survived. One dozen undersized, plaintive looking glutinous rice dumplings sat on my counter, neatly wrapped and tied off with cotton thread. I found them to be a pitifully small yield after the hubbub of activity that lasted for over 3 hours.

And I never did learn how to make them that night. But I think the girls had fun.

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