The Dragon Boat Festival falls on the 5th day of the 5th month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar. This usually falls in the first half of June.
The festival honours Qu Yuan, who was a poet and high official in the state of Chu. There are several variations on the story but all end with Qu Yuan drowning himself in the Miluo River on the 5th of the 5th, 278 B.C.E.
One versions says that Qu Yuan believed passionately in social reforms but this upset more conservative members of the court. They talked the king into banishing Qu Yuan, a punishment he was unable or unwilling to accept.
Another version says that he warned against the threat from a neighbouring state only to be ignored. When that state attacked and took the capital he wrote one last poem before committing suicide.
The festival arose as his fellow countrymen honoured the memory of Qu Yuan by racing Dragon Boats to the presumed spot of his drowning. They threw special pyramid-shaped sticky rice cakes wrapped in leaves into the water to feed his soul. These Zongzi now form an essential part of any Dragon Boat Festival.
Some say the rice cakes were made like this to feed the fish, preventing them from eating his corpse. Others say that Qu Yuan appeared to fishermen in a dream complaining that their original offerings were being taken by a local dragon, hence the need for a lily leaf wrapping.
Whichever story is true, it is interesting to have a symbolism to any foodstuff, and nice to see a patriot being honoured, even if a little too late.
Zongzi are made from sticky or glutinous rice and shaped as a pyramid. Over time, the style of the wrapping and the contents have evolved to suit local conditions all over China.
Zongzi now often contain bean or nut paste in the centre (peanuts and walnuts being favourites), or even egg or meat.
The wrapping is usually of any common local leaf. Bamboo leaves are used in the south, maize and other similar leaves further north.
The Zongzi are steamed or boiled for hours allowing the flavour of the contents and the leaves to seep into the rice, producing a whole range of snacks rather than one distinct dish.