By Anna Mindess
Many annual festivals have their special foods, and so it is with the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival, which falls this year on June 22. Zongzi are this festival’s special dish. The bamboo leaf–wrapped rice rolls are stuffed with a variety of treats like salted duck egg yolks, roast pork, and shiitake mushrooms.
To learn more, a small group gathered at Peony Seafood Restaurant, where for over 20 years, families and friends have come together to celebrate both special occasions and daily meals alike within the 10,000 square feet of dining and banquet rooms on the top floor of the Pacific Renaissance Plaza in the heart of Oakland Chinatown.
Lisa Li, who grew up in Guangzhou, China, and now lives in Piedmont, says the Dragon Boat Festival goes back to the year 278 BCE and honors Qu Yuan, a patriotic poet who was the king’s most trusted advisor until a group of jealous nobles spread lies about his loyalty. The king believed these falsehoods and banished Qu Yuan, which caused the poet to become despondent. When he jumped into the Miluo river to drown, the local people rushed their boats into the water to save their beloved Qu Yuan, to no avail. To distract the fish from eating Qu Yuan’s body, the villagers threw handfuls of sticky rice into the river, and some poured wine into the river to stun the dragons.
Peony’s general manager, Ming Zhu, who also grew up in Guangzhou, remembers enjoying zongzi at family get-togethers every summer and learning about Qu Yuan in school.
“He was ‘the people’s hero,’ and it was meaningful to memorize some of his poems,” says Zhu, as he proudly offers the generously stuffed version of zongzi his restaurant makes in their large kitchen, where dozens of artisans turn out dim sum and other delights daily. The bamboo leaf–wrapped bundles are gently boiled for six hours. The resulting moist packages make for an edible treasure hunt as one discovers and enjoys the succulent morsels hiding within the sticky rice.
For more on the festival and zongzi, we reached out to multi-award-winning cookbook author Grace Young, affectionately known to followers as the Stir-Fry Guru and the Wok Therapist. Young grew up in San Francisco and has lived in New York City for many years. Thanks to a generous friend of her godmother, Young recalls enjoying zongzi every year.
“I grew up with a fine appreciation for the tradition. The zongzi was so exceptional we could devour one in a few minutes. To this day, I still look forward to the Dragon Boat Festival and think fondly of those childhood zongzi. The ultimate comfort food, I loved the combination of chestnuts, shiitake mushrooms, the decadent richness from the salted duck yolk and the glutinous rice that absorbed the flavors from the Chinese sausage and pork belly.”
When the pandemic devastated New York Chinatown, Young initiated what became a series of campaigns to rally support, not only for New York Chinatown, but for all the Chinatowns across the nation. Her dedicated efforts led to her receiving the Julia Child Award, the James Beard Foundation’s Humanitarian of the Year Award (both in 2022), and inclusion as a USA Today 2023 Women of the Year honoree for her work to save America’s Chinatowns amid anti-Asian hate during the pandemic.
“Only a handful of restaurants make zongzi because it’s labor intensive, so I’m extra grateful to Peony for carrying on this delicious tradition,” says Young.
“Food shows history and culture as the culture is absorbed in the food,” says Ming Zhu, who likes welcoming people of every background at Peony. “Zongzi are special because they are very labor intensive, and most people don’t make them at home. Peony is proud to keep this important cultural dish alive.”
Zongzi will be available at Peony until the end of June alongside their impressive selection of handmade dim sum.