Photo: Jordana Bermúdez
The annual Chinese Dragon Boat Festival—when families around the globe celebrate a Chinese legend—has a signature dish: the small pyramidal-shaped rice dumpling wrapped in bamboo leaf called zongzi (粽子). It’s one of the oldest foods from China, with roots dating back to the Spring and Autumn period (771–476 BCE), when this dumpling was made to honor Chinese ancestors. However, it wasn’t until the Jin Dynasty (266–420 AD) that it became the symbol of the Dragon Boat Festival.
Legend has it that patriotic poet Qu Yuan sacrificed his own life in China’s Miluo River after hearing his monarch was defeated. Large dragon-like structures were sent along the river to ward off evil spirits, while Chinese families threw rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves to stop river fish from eating the poet. The story—and tradition of making and eating zongzi—continues to be passed down from generation to generation.
The varieties of zongzi can seem endless: all 23 provinces in China are said to have their own take on the treat, and cuisines across Asia do as well, like bak chang in Thailand and banh chung in Vietnam. Find the snack in restaurants, bakeries and street-cart stalls across the boroughs, with fillings such as succulent pork, shiitake mushrooms, mung beans and even red beans for those with a sweet tooth. And though zongzi are most popular around the time of the Dragon Boat Festival—this year it’s a two-day event the weekend of July 30—you can enjoy some of them year-round in NYC. Read on to find out where.
135-36 39th Ave., Flushing, Queens
Taiwanese zongzi come in two varieties: Taichung and Tainan. Formed in the traditional pyramidal zongzi shape, the Taichung zongzi uses pre-cooked rice stuffed in makino bamboo leaves and is usually filled with salted duck egg, fatty pork, peanuts and dried shrimp. Meanwhile, Tainan zongzi uses Oldham’s bamboo, which adds an earthy aroma to the rice when cooked. Apollo Bakery, on 39th Avenue in Flushing, sells thousands of zongzi leading up to the Dragon Boat Festival, including a variety that is best when dipped in sugar; they carry them on Saturdays. Taipan Bakery and Red Noodle House, also in Flushing, are popular spots among the Taiwanese community too.
Locals also flock to a street stall run by the so-called Zongzi Lady, on the corner of Chrystie and Grand Streets in Manhattan (near Chinatown), for Cantonese- and Taiwanese-style rice dumplings.
159 Graham Ave., East Williamsburg, Brooklyn
If you like soy sauce, you will love zongzi from Shanghai, which are darker and stronger in flavor thanks to the rice being soaked in soy before being wrapped in bamboo leaves and boiled. Fatty pork belly, like what you find in steamed buns at Win Son in Brooklyn, serves as the main filling; rice wine, star anise and five-spice powder add a strong flavor and aroma.
Mee Sum Café
26 Pell St., Chinatown, Manhattan
Mee Sum is known for steamed dim sum like har gow (dumplings) and rice rolls, but the no-frills eatery also has zongzi—filled with mung beans, fatty pork and peanuts—which go down well with a Cantonese-style coffee.
931 Amsterdam Ave., Upper West Side, Manhattan
Thailand has its own zongzi called teochew, also known as bak chang, which can include sweet or savory fillings. The fan favorite is the sweet khao tom madt, in which the rice is cooked in coconut milk rather than water. Find it at Living Thai on the Upper West Side. The restaurant’s version is sweetened with candied banana and is a great chaser for your fiery Thai green curry dinner.
Tan Tin Hung
121 Bowery, Chinatown, Manhattan
Keeping to the tropical areas of Southeast Asia, the Vietnamese riff on zongzi can easily be found in New York City. Banh chung, as it’s known, is associated with the Vietnamese New Year, but this square zongzi mimics the Dragon Boat Festival zongzi with its rice and pork filling, marinated in black pepper and fish sauce and wrapped in dong leaves, then cooked until tender. Tan Ting Hung, a Southeast Asian supermarket, has an excellent example of this version. As well, some Vietnamese restaurants, such as Madame Vo’s two East Village locations, carry them around the time of the Tet holiday, or Vietnamese New Year.
Little House Café
90-19 Corona Ave., Elmhurst, Queens
Malaysian Nyonya zongzi (or bak chang) consists of fermented soybeans, glutinous rice and winter melon. This can typically be found in the weeks leading up to the event at the authentic Malaysian sweet shop Little House Café, in Queens.