If you've been in Chinatown or the San Gabriel Valley during the last week or so, you may have noticed, more than usual, the old ladies hawking small green parcels outside of Broadway's shops or around the parking lots of Chinese supermarkets. They're most likely selling homemade zongzi, or joong in Cantonese, for Duanwu Jie, the Dragon Boat Festival. The celebration falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar; this year's festivities are on June 20.
So what's the significance of eating zongzi, a complete meal of sticky rice stuffed with savory ingredients like Chinese sausage, preserved duck eggs, dried scallops, peanuts, chestnuts, mung bean, and pork belly wrapped in bamboo leaves?
There are different versions of the story, depending on the region in China. This is the way I've heard it: Qu Yuan, a prolific poet and a favorite adviser to the king of the state of Chu in ancient China, was betrayed by jealous courtiers. The king banished Qu Yuan, so he committed suicide by jumping into the river. When the king realized his tragic error against his most loyal subject, he ordered his people to throw the zongzi into the river, so that the fish would eat the rice parcels instead of Qu Yuan's body.
In some versions, he turned into a river spirit and as a sign of respect, locals would feed his spirit every year. Then sometime in the 5th or 6th century A.D., dragon boat races became a part of this eating festival (this weekend San Francisco will be holding their races at Treasure Island). However the story is told, it always ends with his grim death and appeasing something or someone with food.
It's another example of how food has always represented the literal body (which is why consuming frog legs is a common remedy for excruciating leg pain) for the Chinese, tying history (Qu Yuan's poems are in the canon of classical Chinese poetry) and mythology into food loaded with symbolism.
Though zongzi can be found throughout the year, they're especially plentiful at the moment. Your best bet on finding them is to visit Chinese supermarkets, dim sum parlors (note that it's different from the lotus leaf wrapped chicken and rice), or from the little old ladies carrying buckets or coolers outside of these establishments.