A few years ago, during the Dragon Boat Festival, Chinese netizens found themselves engaged in a war over zongzi. The battle was fought over fillings. Should the sticky rice dumplings contain fruit or meat? Is it a main dish or a dessert?
On China’s microblogs and BBS forums, zongzi-lovers quickly formed factions: the Sweet Party (northerners) vs. the Savory Party (southerners). Hundreds of thousands of commenters declared their allegiance to sugar or soy sauce – and merrily denounced the alternative as heresy.
We’ve translated a sampling of their comments below, with an ear for extremists and moderates from either side of the aisle, as well as peacemakers who would bridge the gap that divides them.
The Sweet Party
“The first time I saw a savory zongzi, it scared me. It was like finding soy sauce and a meaty filling inside a slice of cake.”
“My parents refused to even taste savory zongzi. The very concept of putting meat in zongzi or in mooncakes was unsettling to them.”
“Apologies to my brothers and sisters in the South ...... but if you do not dip them in sugar, can you truly call them zongzi?!”
“The first time I celebrated Dragon Boat Festival in Shenzhen, my work team ate zongzi, I bit into a chunk of fat and gagged – earning the scorn of my Hunan colleagues. A guy from Beijing who witnessed this scene decided not to spit out his mouthful and swallowed it instead. Afterwards, he told me that this thing actually had meat in it.”
“To stamp out the scourge of high blood pressure that plagues mankind, the Savory Party must die.”
“For Dragon Boat Festival, a buddy of mine from Guangdong had zongzi filled with spareribs. At Mid-Autumn Festival, he had mooncakes filled with spareribs. Ugh, vomit.”
“My grandma makes zongzi without a filling, but I dip them in sugar. I guess this counts as sweet zongzi.”
“Calling all sweet zongzi partisans ... We must launch a counteroffensive and liberate the Savory Party from their miserable lives. PS: Meat zongzi are against humanity!”
“No! To! Salty! Zongzi!”
“Having bought meat zongzi in the supermarket, I suddenly understood why northerners don’t like it.“
“The Shenzhou 10 manned space mission took zongzi into outer space! They were vacuum-packed, with a red bean paste filling! Sweet zongzi have ascended to the heavens. Savory zongzi, you need to work harder.“
The Savory Party
“The melted fat all over the sticky rice, the sandy texture of the salted egg yolk … that’s my favorite.”
“In Hainan, we also put in pig trotters, shrimp, even chicken wings. A single zongzi might weigh half a kilo. It’s a meal in itself.”
“Burn the Sweet Party!! Then ladle saltwater onto them!! Salty Party for the win.”
“Burning is not cruel enough for the Sweet Party. Let them be sweeted to death.”
“In general, I can’t stomach rice mixed with anything sweet. It makes me throw up.”
“Even a few bites of the sweet ones is cloying.”
“I cut up zongzi and fry it in a skillet with sugar, salt, scallions.”
“I’m with the Meat Party. Only meat can bring out the fragrance of the bamboo leaves, and vice versa.”
“Sweet zongzi were successfully chased off the planet. Let us celebrate the victorious meat zongzi!”
“When I’m braising spareribs, I like to add in sliced chunks of pan-fried zongzi. The ribs soak in the fragrance of the bamboo leaves and sticky rice; the elasticity of the seared zongzi chunks soaks up the gravy.”
“No love for the pyramid-shaped dumplings! Zongzi MUST be wrapped into long logs with a red stick inside, just sweet enough – and then dipped in sugar. But there’s no need for this north-south feud. Why insist that the northerners croon like little bridges over rushing water? Who expects southerners to roar like wild desert sand?”
“I dip my sweet zongzi in soy sauce.”
“Plain zongzi dipped in granulated sugar, zongzi filled with fatty pork and egg yolk – all well and good. But dipping meaty zongzi in sugar … has anybody tried that evildoer yet?”
Banner photo © Song Zhen
How do we translate zongzi? Are they “sticky rice dumplings,” or “rice pyramids,” or – perish the thought – “Chinese tamales”? In Issue 8 of our print magazine, Christina Xu tackles the promise and pitfalls of translating iconic Chinese food items, with the help of panelists Jason Wang of Xi’an Famous Foods, Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees author Kian Lam Kho, and food anthropologist Willa Zhen.