Celebrating Dragon Boat Festival: Traditional Foods and Their Significance

zongzi rice dumplings served on a baomboo plate with bamboo leaves in the background

The Duanwu Festival, aka the Dragon Boat Festival, is a pan-Asian holiday marked by a patriotic legend surrounding themes of sacrifice and community bonds. While more people celebrate the festival (complete with dragon boat races) in China than anywhere else, it carries special significance to Asian peoples throughout Southeast Asia as well.

As you might imagine, food plays an important role during the festivities, which brings communities together even well outside its homeland. You can partake yourself by visiting your preferred Asian market in Naperville and gathering the ingredients to make your very own Dragon Boat Festival feast.

The Dragon Boat Festival, held in late May or June, commemorates the legendary and historical death of Qu Yuan, a poet-folk hero widely regarded for opposing the king’s attempts at consolidating power. Banished from a lofty position of influence, Qu Yuan conveyed his vision for China in a vast portfolio of well-loved poetry before throwing himself in the river out of equal parts defiance and despair.

In remembrance, the festivities reach well beyond the Chinese border, garnering widespread international attention in Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore. Many gather to watch the dragon boat races (i.e., a type of competitive rowing), and a unique array of mouthwatering delicacies are never far behind.

Zongzi is a type of starchy, glutinous rice pocket stuffed with a variety of fillings, then wrapped in bamboo leaves and steamed to perfection. Northern cultures in China typically enjoy a sweet red bean paste zongzi, while cultures in the south largely know a variety shaped like a pyramid and consisting of mushrooms, salted egg yolk, and pork belly.

For both cultures, zongzi symbolizes a part of the legend whereby villagers threw zongzi (a food originally created to revere ancestors and divinities) into the river to prevent fish from perturbing the fallen body of Qu Yuan.

Hearts open, bellies fill, and wines flow during the Dragon Boat Festival. Even ethnic cuisine lovers well-versed in Chinese and Southeast Asian fare are usually surprised to first learn about several of the most popular foods and beverages enjoyed throughout the festival:

  • Realgar Wine (Xiong Huang Wine): A traditional Chinese wine, used for warding off evil spirits and associated with various protective properties. During festivities, a common tradition is “drawing” symbols of protection on the forehead using realgar wine.
  • Egg Dumplings: A type of dumpling called “dan jiao” serves as an addictive snack. Akin to an egg omelet wrapped around an array of enticing options, dan jiao is often served with a type of gravy, hot pot, or soup for dipping.
  • Sticky Rice Cakes: Sating your appetite for a feast is never complete without something sweet. Children and adults alike enjoy sticky rice cakes with a fervor you might attribute to cupcakes shared at a happy and innocent celebration party.

By and large, Dragon Boat Festival cuisine reflects a culinary tradition steeped in the enduring connections between food and community. The use of food during the Dragon Boat Festival also centers around appreciation for the healing and protective properties many attribute to their preferred delicacies.

Contemporary Dragon Boat Festival celebrations involve a unique blend of old and newly invented traditions, including preparations marked by easy and exciting recipes and community rituals expressed in a variety of ways among old and new crowds alike.

Now, Chinese communities around the world have adapted many of these traditional foods with local cuisine, based partly on the thrill of experimentation and availability of ingredients

We pride ourselves on ensuring customers can overcome almost any obstacle to their global food explorations. That’s why we stock an extremely broad array of ingredients and products for some of the world’s most popular international fare.

To celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival and make it your way, visit our Naperville ethnic foods market and make food a central part of the celebrations.

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