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Here's the Story Behind the Dragon Boat Festival and Rice Dumplings

Happy Dragon Boat Festival! How many rice dumplings have you eaten today? 

Many of us have celebrated this event all our lives, but do we know what we’re actually celebrating? And what’s with the dumplings anyway?

For all those who are wondering about the history behind Dragon Boat Festival, also known as Duan Wu Jie, the festival actually commemorates a legendary Chinese poet, Qu Yuan.

Qu Yuan (340 BC to 278 BC) lived during the Warring States period and was known for pioneering the art of Chinese poetry in ancient China. He also served as a minister and advisor to the King, and was well loved by the people.

However, he was slandered by corrupt officials who influenced the King to banish him.

In his exile, Qu Yuan spent much of his time writing some of the greatest Chinese poetry, collecting legends and rearranging folk odes while traveling the countryside. In his works he also expressed deep concerns for his state and people. 

In 278 BC, Qu Yuan’s hometown, the state of Chu fell to the siege of the state of Qin. Having learnt of this, Qu Yuan was stricken with grief and committed suicide by wading into the Miluo River (located in today's Hubei Province) while holding a rock.

It is said that the local people, who revered Qu Yuan, raced out in their boats to save him, or at least retrieve his body, and this became the origin of dragon boat races. When his body could not be found, the people dropped balls of sticky rice into the river so that the fishes would eat them instead of Qu Yuan's body.

Since then, it has become a custom for Chinese families to eat rice dumplings in memory of Qu Yuan's legacy.

Today, the Dragon Boat Festival is more about having families come together. In many ethnic Chinese households, dumpling-making used to be a bonding session and family activity involving every member of the household. Each Chinese dialect group also has their own variation of the rice dumplings!

What are the different rice dumplings (bak chang)?

Hokkien Bak Chang

Hokkien bak changs are the most common ones you see at the stalls. Its rice is coloured brown with dark soy sauce and it comes with a filling of pork belly, mushrooms, chestnut and dried shrimps. You’ll pick up the distinct aroma of five spice powder and sometimes there’ll be a salted egg yolk in there too!

Cantonese Bak Chang

The Cantonese-style bak chang has a sumptuous filling of chinese sausages (lup cheong), pork, salted egg yolk, and green beans. Its rice is lighter than the Hokkien bak chang and sometimes it is wrapped into an oblong shape instead of the usual triangular pyramid.

Teochew Bak Chang

A combination of sweet and savoury, what differentiates Teochew bak chang from the others is the sweet red bean paste that is stuffed together with the savoury filling of pork, mushrooms, salted eggs and dried shrimps and chestnuts.

Kee Chang

All of the above three major dialect groups make kee zhang, so we’re not sure which dialect group created it. This simple bak chang has no meat and no filling. “Kee”, which also means “lye”, is what gives it its yellow hue and distinct flavour. The Kee chang is smaller in size and can be eaten by plain, dipped in sugar or drizzled over with gula melaka.

Nyonya Chang

The Nyonya Chang has a distinctive blue corner in its rice from butterfly pea flowers. The Peranakans have created their own variation of the bak chang with minced lean pork, candied winter melon strips and coriander powder. It tastes sweeter than the usual bak chang.

Hainanese Bak Chang

You’ll find the usual suspects like pork belly, chestnuts and mushrooms in the Hainanese bak chang. What sets it apart? Hainanese bak changs are said to use bigger pieces of every ingredient, resulting in a larger-than-usual bak chang, and a satisfying mouthfeel every bite.

Which is your favourite type of rice dumpling? Comment and let us know!

26 Jun 2020
thanks for the article
26 Jun 2020
Nice article!
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