For as long as I can remember, the scent of steaming Taiwanese zongzi (or bahtzang, in Taigi) filled my childhood home the weekend ahead of the Dragon Boat Festival day. Before the convenience of Asian grocery chains having a prepared foods section, the memory of my mom sitting on a low plastic stool in the kitchen making zongzi comes to mind. The warmth from the gas stove mixed with boiling pots of zongzi cooking on all four burners signaled to me the start of summer.
Zongzi production is labor intensive. It’s a multi-day task with a lot of prep work. The endurance needed from start to finish is striking and the skill to close leaf wrappers gracefully with twine so that the rice doesn’t spill and burst open takes years to master. When I was a little girl, my mom would dictate the instructions in Mandarin as her hands fell into an effortless choreography. For her, it came with such ease, although I’m sure it took years of practice. I observed and gave it many shots, but never grasped the technique. It takes immense grip, patience and precision, none of which I had as a kid.
Once steamed, batches of zongzi were separated into upcycled grocery bags from various Asian supermarkets. A taste test was mandatory, as my mom doesn’t cook with a recipe. A bite here and a taste there, our bellies would be full of zongzi for the day.
Late into the evening, batches of zongzi cool on the kitchen island before being labeled and brought to the basement freezer. Every season, neighbors, family and even my friends received them as gifts. My cousin’s late-grandmother, who I’m not related to but called Popo anyways, also made zongzi. These were a welcome addition because they were Shanghainese style. The shape, different compared to the ones my mom made, were elongated, with a softer rice texture and a giant piece of flavorful pork in the center.
Day of production wouldn’t be the end of the zongzi season in our household. School lunches for the next few days would be…you guessed it: zongzi. At first my mom would reheat them in the morning and then configure the triangular rice pyramids sans leaf into my plastic thermos food container, which was usually used for fried rice leftovers from dinner the night before or the special occasion spaghetti. There were times when my mom was running behind on making four school lunches that I’d just take the zongzi to school in its leaf wrapper. Mystified by the zongzi when I opened it like a present at lunch, my classmates would ask what I was eating. Although I was the only Taiwanese person in my class, my Cantonese classmates knew. Otherwise, I’d make up a silly explanation because I’ve always turned to humor not to be embarrassed.
When I moved out for university, finding surprise zongzi in the freezer, often tucked under vegetarian baozis also made by my mom, were a delight. I’d pop it into my Tatung rice cooker to heat up. Eager to dig in, lifting the rice cooker lid meant I’d be met with a very distinct and earthy aroma of the rehydrated shell ginger leaves. A comforting and familiar scent, taste and feeling.
Years after my mom became an empty nester, she continued to make zongzi. Recently I asked her why, considering it’s easier to just buy a few at the store, and I didn’t want her hunched over on the tiny plastic stool anymore.
“I won’t have the energy to make them much longer anyway,” my mom replied.
That’s when I realized, making zongzi isn’t about saving money or her skills in the kitchen.
It’s her love language.
She brightens when people tell her how much it reminds them of Taiwan, her home country, or how tasty it is. She never misses an opportunity to point out how expensive zongzi are when we drop by an Asian grocery store. She usually walks by them in the shop and adds in the confident “I can make it better at home.” jeer. In the back of my mind, my mom will always be my zongzi plug. But as she enters her sunset years and I take on more eldercare, I know my hands will have to learn this tradition or have it fade into distant memory.
As this year’s Dragon Boat Festival approached, my hands were ready to help my mom continue her love for making zongzi. Patience and endurance, used in both making zongzi and eldercare. Perhaps our love languages aren’t so different after all.
Amy is an award-winning podcast producer and filmmaker. As a journalist, her work covers food, culture and the Asian American experience. Amy’s most recent project is a micro budget doc she produced, directed and edited about the love language of East Asian parents, where a viral Tik Tok scrunchie business was profiled.
You can learn more about Amy at her website: https://www.amychyan.com/