This weekend's Dragon Boat Festival is a time for dragon boat races and festive outdoor celebrations.
The traditional Chinese holiday, which falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar and commemorates scholar Qu Yuan, also has its own food custom: making and eating zongzi, or rice dumplings. The treats have earned the nickname “Taiwanese tamales,” and appear as such on some menus.
Usually tetrahedral in shape, zongzi are made from glutinous (sticky) rice, stuffed with different fillings, wrapped in bamboo leaves, bound with twine and then steamed. Fillings can be savory or sweet, but pork belly is the most common. Red beans, mushrooms, peanuts, salted egg yolks and jujubes (red dates) are among the other ingredients you might find cooked into zongzi.
Though you can find them at Chinese supermarkets, specialty stores and restaurants year-round, zongzi are omnipresent this time of year in the San Gabriel Valley— similar to the abundance of mooncakes around the time of the Mid-Autumn Festival. And like mooncakes, zongzi, too, come in different regional styles and variations, with Shanghainese and Taiwanese being the best known and easiest to find.
Shanghai-style is known for using rice wine and soy sauce with solely pork filling, while Taiwanese-style is where you'll find peanuts and mushrooms in the fillings, sometimes along with dried shrimp or scallions.
For Shanghainese-style zongzi, look no further than favorite hole-in-the-wall Dean Sin World (206 N. Garfield Ave.) in Monterey Park, which has a deep, rich zongzi. There's also Little Shanghai (18457 Colima Road), which also serves exceptional soup dumplings in a food court, and the fantastic Shanghainese restaurant Wang Jia (156 S. San Gabriel Blvd.) in San Gabriel.
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Little Shanghai, along with its strip-mall neighbor across the street, the Taiwanese deli Yi Mei (18414 Colima Road, Rowland Heights), has by far the widest selection of the Dragon Boat Festival staple. Both eateries offer six variations of the holiday treats, ranging from black rice with red bean at Little Shanghai to vegetable at Yi Mei. Keep in mind, the “vegetable” zongzi here also has pork in it.
Seeking Taiwanese-style zongzi? Try the Alhambra favorite Old Country Café (2 E. Valley Blvd.) or Taiwanese snack shop and sausage joint Sinbala, which has locations in Arcadia and Rowland Heights. Chinese breakfast spots Four Sea in Hacienda Heights and Huge Tree Pastry in Monterey Park also serve fantastic zongzi.
If you can’t or aren’t willing to make the drive to the San Gabriel Valley, your options are rather limited. But there's still hope: On the Westside, there’s Bao Dim Sum House (8256 Beverly Blvd.) and Pingtung Eat-in Market (7455 Melrose Ave.). In Chinatown, try Golden Dragon (960 N. Broadway). Finally, in the San Fernando Valley, 99 Ranch Market in Van Nuys (6450 Sepulveda Blvd.) will satisfy your craving for rice dumplings.