The word zongzi refers to a sticky rice parcel wrapped in a large, sturdy leaf. The shape and stuffings vary by region but the wrapper is always a thick leaf, used to hold the contents together and impart a sweet fragrance to them.
The dish is an integral part of Chinese culture, being the main attraction of the annual Dragon Boat Festival, which is celebrated every summer with paddle-boat racing all over the country.
While modern-day dragon boat celebrations are mainly athletic events, there’s a legend behind the festivities.
Most people point to the story of revered poet Qu Yuan (屈原), who committed suicide in 278 BC by weighing himself down and walking into a river. Villagers tried stopping him, and when they failed, rode boats out, beating drums to ward off evil spirits, and threw rice parcels into the river to distract the fish from eating his body. Those rice parcels were what we know now as zongzi.
There are renditions of the zongzi all throughout Asia, especially in the tropical areas where thick, perennial leaves grow in abundance. These variants are not necessarily related to the Chinese zongzi, but they’re very similar in composition. The leaf wrapper is entirely regional and ranges from pandan, to lotus, to banana, to bamboo, and shell ginger.
Here’s a thorough guide to zongzi and all its Asian cousins:
1. Northern China zongzi 咸水粽
In the north part of China, zongzi is wrapped in bamboo leaves and is filled with jujubes and red bean paste. The rice is soaked in an alkaline solution before being cooked, which gives it a springy consistency. Sometimes goji berries and candied dates are thrown in for an extra layer of sweetness.
2. Southern Chinese lo mai gai 珍珠雞
Lo mai gai comes wrapped in a dried lotus leaf and is encased with sticky rice, mushrooms, sweet sausage bits, scallions, dried shrimp, salted egg yolk, and marinated chicken. The lotus leaf wrap gives the rice a golden hue and an earthy flavor. Historically, lo mai gai was steamed in bowls sans the lotus leaf. The leaf was later adopted by street vendors as a to-go wrap for convenience.
3. Southern China, Shanghainese zongzi
The biggest difference between a Shanghai-style zongzi and the Cantonese variant is that the former is especially generous with the use of soy sauce. Shanghai zongzis use both dark and light soy sauce. And instead of chicken, pork belly is the preferred protein of choice. Rice wine, star anise, five-spice powder create depth to this variant.
4. Northern Taiwanese zongzi 北部粽
Zongzi in northern Taiwan is packaged together with dried makino bamboo leaves and wrapped in a cylindrical structure. Sticky rice, salted duck egg, pork, peanuts, dried shrimp, shiitake mushrooms, and an occasional water chestnut are at its core. Optional ingredients include squid, taro, or bamboo shoots. The rice is cooked beforehand before being wrapped and steamed.
5. Southern Taiwanese zongzi 南部粽
Image: Clarissa Wei (Image)
The zongzi in the south of Taiwan is tetrahedral-shaped and use Oldham's bamboo instead of makino. The ingredients are more or less the same as the north, except that southerners tend to put in peanuts. Unlike in the north, the ingredients are wrapped in raw and then boiled with the leaf and all.
6. Indigenous Taiwanese abai 阿拜
Image: Clarissa Wei
Indigenous tribes in Taiwan have been making their own version of zongzi for centuries. In Taidong, the Rukai tribe does a dish called abai, made with millet and pork belly and covered with the papery and edible leaves of Trichodesma khasianum, which have a distinct, garlicky flavor profile. The entire bundle is held together by the glossy leaves of the shell ginger plant, which gives off a distinct floral scent when steamed.
7. Japanese chimaki ちまき
Chimakis are very similar to the zongzi and are said to have come from China. The savory renditions are nearly identical to its Chinese counterpart and can be found year-round. The sweet variation is a little bit different, and is made with arrowroot rice cakes (kuzdumochi), jellied bean paste (yokan), a sweet rice ball (dango), and corn. It’s all molded into a long and narrow triangle shape, bound with bamboo leaves, and usually appears only around May 5th, or Japanese Children’s Day.
8. Filipino suman
The suman is an integral part of the Filipino Christmas tradition. Like zongzi, it uses sticky rice but is simmered in coconut milk instead of plain water. There are many different iterations of this dish in the Philippines. Suman sa lihiya is among the most popular, soaked both in lye and coconut milk. Suman ibus is another rendition, which is steamed in a bright-yellow turmeric water.
There are no fillings inside the wrap. Instead, there are only toppings, which include mangoes, sugar, or latik (caramelized coconut crumbs). The wrap is held together by either banana, palm, bamboo, or tagbak leaf. The tagbak is a herbaceous perennial plant with a distinct minty flavor profile.
9. Indonesian botok
Botok uses shredded coconut flesh with the juice completely squeezed out. The coconut flesh is mixed with vegetables and a protein that can include tempeh, mushroom, beef, ares (the core of a banana tree trunk), catfish, or anchovies. Some forms of botok use unsqueezed coconut flesh, which gives the dish a more full and robust flavor. A banana leaf binds everything together and is fastened by a single toothpick.
10. Northern Vietnamese báhn chu’ng
The bánh chưng comes in a square shape and is stuffed with rice, pork, and mung beans -- the latter of which is said to symbolize the sun. Báhn chu’ng is traditionally served at Tết, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. The glutinous rice is layered with a creamy mung bean paste and the pork belly is marinated in ground black pepper and fish sauce. It’s all hugged in a parcel of bright green dong leaves (Phrynium placentarium) and reinforced with plastic green ribbons to match.
11. Southern Vietnamese bánh tét
Like its northern counterpart, bánh tét is also served during Tết, and is similarly filled with glutinous rice, a mung bean paste, and marinated pork belly. However, it’s cylindrical in shape (instead of square) and is rolled together in a banana leaf (instead of a dong leaf). The final dish is sliced into wheels and is usually either paired with pickled vegetables or dipped in sugar. A sweet version is made by filling the glutinous rice with mung beans and banana.
12. Southeast Asian otak-otak
Named after the Indonesian and Malay word for brain, otak-otak kind of looks like a brain with its mushy white-grey filling. It’s made of a mix of pulverized fish meat and tapioca starch wrapped inside a banana leaf. There’s not a big difference between the Indonesian and Malaysia and Singapore variants. Otak-otak from Indonesia has a whitish color, while otak-otak from Malaysia and Singapore has reddish-orange tint because of the use of chili, turmeric and curry powder.
13. South Indian elai adai
Elai adai is a sweet delicacy in Kerala, a state in south India along the western tip. The word elai refers to a banana leaf and the word ada refers to the filling, which is a steamed flat rice cake. The rice cake is at the heart of the dish. It’s cooked with a delectable mixture of grated coconut, sugar cane cubes, jackfruit and cardamom. The final product is topped off with jackfruit slices for an additional layer of sweetness.
14. Indian khotte
Fermented rice cake and black lentils are steamed into a savory cake called idli, and then bound together with jackfruit leaves. This dish is called khotte and is considered essential for celebrations and festivals in the western and southern half of India. Traditional accoutrements include spicy coconut chutney, mango chutney, and a gingery coconut chutney.
15. Indonesian lemper
A savory snack from Indonesia, the lemper is made of glutinous rice cooked with coconut milk and filled with either shredded chicken (called lemper ayam), fish, or meat floss. The meat is rolled inside the rice, which is then stuffed inside a banana leaf. Everything is fastened together with a biting or lidi semat—a small wooden needle made of a coconut leaf or bamboo.'
16. Thai khao tom (Lao: ເຂົ້າຕົ້ມ; Thai: ข้าวต้ม)
This dessert, popular in Laos and Thailand, can be either savory or sweet. Pork fat and mung bean stuffing is at the heart of the savory renditions. The sweet versions feature rice, banana, and coconut milk. In Thailand, khao tom is considered an auspicious items for couples. Two khao toms are usually bound together by bamboo strings and are gifted to monk by couples in search of good luck.