What you need to know
What is Taiwan's eternal debate over Northern and Southern rice dumplings about?
Dragon Boat Festival is the annual occasion for two kinds of major battles in Taiwan. There are the traditional dragon boat races. And there is the equally fierce rivalry between supporters of Taiwan’s Southern and Northern regional style rice dumplings called zongzi (粽子).
Preparing and eating rice dumplings is one of the most important traditions associated with the Dragon Boat Festival. Rice dumplings, typically pyramid-shaped, are glutinous rice balls wrapped in reed or bamboo leaves, filled with various meats and delicacies. The leaves that wrap around the rice ball pass on a subtle herbal aroma and flavor to the rice.
Invented in ancient China about 2,000 years ago, rice dumplings have evolved to vary by region and ethnic group.
Brought over from China, the tradition of eating rice dumplings has continued in Taiwan, especially during the Dragon Boat Festival. But more than one style of the savory snack has taken hold in Taiwan. The question of which style - Northern or Southern - is better has fueled an endless debate.
What’s in a rice dumpling?
Common rice dumplings fillings across Taiwan include pork, dried shrimp, salted duck egg yolk, preserved radish, dried shiitake mushrooms, peanuts, chestnuts, and shallots. Northern and Southern Taiwan cuisines use these ingredients in vastly different ways.
For Northern Taiwanese rice dumplings, the glutinous rice and fillings are generally seasoned with pepper and soy sauce. They are stir-fried, wrapped up with tawny Makino bamboo husks, and steamed.
As for Southern Taiwanese rice dumplings, glutinous rice is stir-fried, seasoned, and then filled into green Ma bamboo leaves. The final step is boiling the dumplings. The flavor of the fillings is slowly absorbed by the rice during the boiling process.
Northern Taiwanese rice dumplings are darker, chewier, and greasier while their Southern counterparts are lighter, softer, stickier, and more moist. Southern Taiwanese rice dumplings are usually served with sauces or peanut powder.
The common criticisms levied against each are that Northern Taiwanese rice dumplings are often criticized for closely resembling another Taiwanese traditional food called “glutinous oil rice (油飯),” but wrapped in bamboo leaves. On the other hand, some dislike Southern Taiwanese rice dumplings for the mushy texture.
Every year when Dragon Boat Festival approaches, there are articles, social media posts, and polls, on the battle between the two regional style rice dumplings. Partisans of the two sides even half-jokingly despise each other for mistaking “the real” rice dumplings.
Beyond the North-South debate
The debate may seem harmless, but its two-sided nature at times it can distract from the diversity of rice dumplings in Taiwan. Apart from the Northern and Southern Taiwanese rice dumplings, there are a few more types worth knowing.
For example, Hakka rice dumplings or Hakka Banzong (粄粽) replace rice grains with mochi-like sticky glutinous rice dough. Fillings are not very different from the Northern and Southern Taiwanese rice dumplings. But they are just saltier, like typical Hakka food, to add flavor to the plain and unseasoned rice dough. This type of rice dumpling is also rather common and popular in Taiwan.
Taiwanese who came to the island from China around the time of the Kuomintang’s retreat in the 1940s, tend to favor Huzhou (湖州) rice dumplings, which are named after a city in China’s Zhejiang Province. These rice dumplings are often available in both savory pork and sweet red bean flavors.
One of the more rarely seen varieties of rice dumplings is called jianzong (鹼粽). It is sweeter than the typical fare. They are typically made plain, without fillings, and dipped in granulated sugar or sugar syrup. Sometimes they are filled with red bean paste. They are soaked in alkaline water, imparting the glutinous rice with an amber translucent appearance and chewy texture.
Taiwan’s indigenous groups also partake in eating delicious leaf-wrapped rice balls, but these are unrelated to Dragon Boat Festival. Ingredients of aboriginal rice dumplings vary from tribe to tribe, but the outer layer they use in common is normally shell ginger leaf.
The inedible “Central Taiwanese rice dumplings”
Lastly, it is obligatory to mention “Central Taiwanese rice dumplings,” the newest iteration, and perhaps most interesting of the Taiwanese rice dumplings. They are not edible, but they refer to the wave breaker blocks common along Taiwan’s coastline, the concrete structures that are used to slow coastal erosion.
Urban legend has it that a gangster offended a son of Yen Ching-piao (顏清標), the most notorious gangster in Taichung, and this gangster was killed and buried among those wave breakers, which look like rice dumplings.
But don’t let this spoil your Dragon Boat Festival.
TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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