Almost every Chinese holiday comes with its own signature food. The Dragon Boat Festival — the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, which typically lands in late May or June — marks the prime of zongzi season across Chinese communities. While this dish of steamed glutinous rice wrapped in reed or bamboo leaves might still be strange to non-Chinese eaters, the food is quickly making its way into the Chinese restaurant scene in New York City.
In recent years, the dish has popped up on the menu of dozens of Chinese restaurants across the city. The type of zongzi served, though, is a hotly contested issue. In northern China, zongzi is often treated as a dessert. It’s either stuffed with red bean paste, candied dates, or made with no stuffing at all but dipped in frosted sugar. In many southern regions, zongzi is viewed as a savory snack wrapped with ham, mushroom, chicken, or salted egg yolk. On the Chinese internet, the debates between sweet and savory zongzi fans occur every year, almost making itself a part of the Dragon Boat Festival celebration.
That rivalry has carried over to the NYC Chinese restaurant scene as well. Northern Chinese restaurants like Auntie Guan’s Kitchen, near Union Square, and Zouji BBQ in Flushing, exclusively sell sweet zongzi stuffed with candied dates. Meanwhile, southern Chinese restaurants like Shanghai You Garden and Diverse Dimsum — both in Flushing — primarily offer the Shanghai-style zongzi with salted pork and egg yolk. There are, however, some places in the city that accommodate both savory and sweet tastes: Haidilao Hotpot, for example, sells zongzi with red bean, dates, as well as pork and egg yolk. Chinatown’s Deluxe Food Market sells a variety of zongzi all year long, and during the Dragon Boat Festival season, the street vendors nearby often sell reed leaves to make zongzi at home.
Zongzi hasn’t quite made a name for itself in the restaurant mainstream here the way other Chinese festival foods, like mooncakes, have but that’s changing fast. Many restaurants are now handing them out free in the hopes of bringing the dish wider recognition. At Hao Noodle’s Chelsea location, zongzi with red bean paste accompany every order.
“We give away zongzi every year, and American customers are more open to the sweet zongzi,” says Julia Zhu, the owner of Hao Noodle. “It might be harder for them to get used to the combination between pork and sticky rice.”
That doesn’t seem to be the case at Upper West Side noodle bar the Tang, where savory versions of the dish are becoming just as popular as the sweet variants. In fact, free giveaways of zongzi have helped boost sales, and customers have reached out asking for zongzi with pork, and inquiring about the history of the dish on the restaurant’s social media page.
“We dipped our zongzi in light soy sauce to make it more flavorful,” says Paulo Wei, a spokesperson for the Tang. “We try to strike a balance between the Chinese flavor and what the American audience prefers.”
The history of zongzi dates back thousands of years ago. According to Chinese folklore, the food and the Dragon Boat Festival were created to commemorate Qu Yuan, a beloved poet and politician who drowned himself somewhere around 278 B.C. The legend has various iterations, but across all versions, the leaf-sealed rice was fabled to serve the same purpose: Zongzi is thrown into rivers to feed and distract fish and shrimps (also, aquatic dragons) from nibbling Qu’s body.
As the dish gains more recognition in the United States, it’s currently undergoing a creative renaissance in China with several novel stuffings that eschew the sweet-and-savory dichotomy. Zongzi with seafood, fruits, and ice cream have joined the game, and international giants like Starbucks, KFC, and Pizza Hut have all introduced it to their menus in China. “Xing bing zong,” a jello-like, translucent zongzi released by Starbucks over recent years has become one of the most iconic and subversive iterations of this traditional Chinese dish.
That sense of experimentation and excitement around zongzi seems poised to take off in NYC as well. “It takes time for the American market to accept zongzi,” says Zhu, of Hao Noodle. “The longer it’s here, the more people will get to know about it.”
When he’s not planning his next meal, Tony Lin makes videos and writes about food and the world around him.