Celebrating Mom's Love with Dragon Boat Dumplings

This time of year, I think about my mom running back and forth between her little kitchen and her local morning market in Penang, Malaysia.  She has a two wheel shopping trolley that I nicknamed her “Mercedes”, which she pulls quickly behind her as she treks the 1km on the side of a narrow road to the market.

There, she zigzags through the crowd, stopping for short bursts of chatter with the other aunties she sees every day.  They all chirp at once, like morning songbirds happily telling their stories even if no one is listening.

My mom has her route.  Light items first like leafy veggies and spice pastes and herbs. Then into the meat market, where chickens still cluck and the floor is soaked wet.  She buys whole fish, pork ribs, chicken thighs, and Thai shrimp.  She emerges from the other end of the building, her trolley wheels still dripping, leaving two tracks as she zooms over to the fruit stands.  She stuffs bananas and oranges in the bottom of the cart, and zips it up for the journey home.  There’s no room for the heavy papaya, so she keeps it in the plastic bag and carries it with her free hand.

It’s her routine.  She finds the joy in it.  But it doesn’t lessen the physical strain or the daily grind or the danger of walking along that same road every single day for decades.  And when she returns home, instead of resting for a moment, she immediately gets to work in her kitchen and cooks the rest of the day for my family.

I think about my mom this time of year not only because of how much I appreciate her on Mother’s Day, but also because this time of year she takes on her most epic cooking project to carry on an ancient Chinese tradition and to do just one more nice thing for her loved ones.

June 2, 2014 is the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, which marks the Duanwu Festival 端午节 (also known as the Dragon Boat Festival).  The celebration includes dragon boat racing, as well as feasting on traditional rice dumplings called zongzi 粽子.

Made of glutinous rice with all sorts of unique & delicious fillings, zongzi are available in savory & sweet versions, wrapped into pyramid shapes with bamboo or reed leaves (the savory, meaty types of dumplings in Penang are spiced with a special Chinese Five Spice).

Like many traditional Chinese foods cooked during festival time, zongzi is based on folklore –

Qu Yuan 屈原 (340-278 BC.), the pioneer poet of ancient China, was a descendant of the Chu royal house.  He was banished from his high ranking position when he opposed the king’s decision to ally with the expanding neighbor state of Qin.  When the capital of Chu fell into the power of Qin, Qu Yuan’s grief drove him to commit suicide by drowning in the Miluo River on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month.

To honor Qu Yuan’s courage for standing up to the king, the local people threw rice dumplings into the river to feed the fish so that they would not eat Qu Yuan's body.

The annual tradition continues today, so on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, families come together to make zongzi.  But to the dismay of all the hungry fish in Penang, zongzi are now given out as gifts to family and friends.

As simple as ‘rice dumpling’ sounds, there is a good reason why it is only made once a year at home – it’s a tedious, multi day process in the kitchen.  An exhausting activity that only the most determined can accomplish.  Of course, I’m talking about my mom.

Mom spends three days in the kitchen to make different types of zongzi - meat dumplings (bak chang) with Penang Chinese Five Spice, alkaline dumplings (kee chang) with coconut and palm sugar sauce, and Nyonya dumplings (Nyonya chang) that have similar ingredients to bak chang, but include a few surprises like candied winter melon, and a spice blend of anise seed and coriander powder.

When I called her this week – the week leading up to Mother’s Day – she was already busy preparing hundreds of zongzi.  She sounded stressed, and resolved as ever to complete the task.

I may never convince her to slow down and take a much deserved rest during Mother’s Day, but I can give her the long overdue recognition for being one of the best cooks in Malaysia, cooking up the most delicious zongzi.

So this month, when people all over the world open up the Spring 2014 issue of Four Seasons Luxury Travel Magazine, the single image that epitomizes the classic "Dragon Boat Dumpling", will be my mom’s creation from her little kitchen in Penang.

Wishing my mom, and all the moms reading this story, a very Happy Mother's Day!

[For the most determined of you, and the curious, click here to find Mom’s recipe for zongzi 粽子 ]