Dragon Boat Festival
This month we visit the famous Dragon Boat Festival in Taiwan. This is the day when dragon boat races are held on the rivers and lakes. However, in addition to the boat races there are many other traditions, rituals and special food for this particular festival. What's even more interesting is the tale behind the origin of the festival.
The Dragon Boat Festival is a commemoration of the patriotic scholar, poet, and statesman Cyu Yuan (circa. 340 – 277 B.C.), who lived during in the Warring States Period of ancient China. During this turbulent period, regional warlords annexed smaller states around them to consolidate their rule. The seven most powerful warlords called themselves kings and tried every means to overtake and conquer one another. Cyu Yuan served the Chu state. Among the seven states, the Chu and the Cin later became the two strongest. Cyu Yuan was originally highly favored by the Chu King, who later distanced himself from Cyu Yuan because of vilifications from Cyu Yuan's political enemies. Cyu Yuan was then exiled. When the capital of Chu was captured by Cin's army, Cyu Yuan threw himself into the Miluo River to end his life and to show loyalty to his own political beliefs and also to the Chu king, despite his exile.
After Cyu Yuan's death, the common people organized search parties, rowing up and down the river to find his body. The women wrapped rice inside leaves to throw into the river in the hope of keeping the fish and shrimps from eating Cyu Yuan's corpse. This is the origin of the dragon boat race, while the rice balls wrapped in leaves became the festive dumpling snack called Zongzih. Today people still hold dragon boat races and eat Zongzih during the Dragon Boat Festival. More than just a traditional festive activity, today the dragon boat race has become an international sports event, with teams from around the world coming to Taiwan for the races every year. It is an event of intense excitement, with the colorfully decorated dragon boats, the cheering of the crowd, and the wild beating of the drums to spur the rowers on.
Zongzih, the festive snack, has nowadays become very common and popular with all Taiwanese. There are stalls or shops selling all kinds of Zongzih on the streets of Taiwan and the dumplings come in all kinds of shapes and flavors. Even the leaves that are used differ greatly. These different flavors, shapes and wrappings are a perfect reflection of the available ingredients and the palates of the people in the specific region. The choices of Zongzih alone are dazzling enough, let alone the different sauces that go with different kinds of Zongzih.
In addition to Zongzih and dragon boat races, there are many other interesting customs during this festival. People hang bouquets made of mugwort, sword-like iris leaves and banyan twigs on both sides of the entrance to their home. In the old days, mosquitoes, flies and many other insects multiplied with the summer heat, which begins to intensify at this time of the year. Consequently the risk of many infectious diseases became greater. Mugwort is considered to possess medicinal effects; the banyan twigs symbolize good health, while the sword-like iris leaves are considered to be able to expel evil spirits. Another very popular custom during the festival is fragrance sachets –colorful cloth sachets in various shapes such as animals, fruits, plants, lucky Chinese symbols and historical or imaginary characters. Inside the sachet is a fragrant powder made of various kinds of Chinese herbs. The sachets were originally regarded as amulets that worked to drive away evil spirits as well as expelling commonly seen pests and vermin in the heat of high summer. Nowadays, however, they are worn mostly for their decorative value.
In addition to Zongzih, Taiwan boasts many other festive snacks and cuisines. Another famous example is the rice dumplings eaten during the Lantern Festival and the winter solstice. There are two names for the rice dumplings: during the Lantern Festival, they are called Yuansiao while on the winter solstice, they are known as Tangyuan.
According to Taiwanese folklore, eating Tangyuan on the winter solstice symbolizes that one has become one year older. This may not sound very nice to some people, especially for ladies who want to stay young. Like Zongzih, the rice dumpling has become a popular snack with Taiwanese people and there are many kinds of Tang Yuan with different flavors for you to sample when visiting Taiwan.
Unlike Zongzih and rice dumplings, moon cakes remain a festive snack eaten only during the Mid-Autumn Festival (also known as the Moon Festival). Moon cakes symbolize the fullness of life, just like the full moon people admire during the Moon Festival. What's noteworthy, however, is that moon cakes are probably one of the most famous of the local Taiwanese snacks among foreigners. Moon cakes are so famous and popular that even international companies like Starbucks and Haagen-Dazs have started to make and provide moon cakes for their customers exclusively in Taiwan during the Moon Festival period. Although most people usually associate moon cakes with sweet snacks or dessert, there are also moon cakes with savory stuffings.
In addition to all these festive foods, one can easily find many different snacks here in Taiwan. Foreigners who have visited Taiwan know that it is indeed a culinary heaven which offers a wide range of delicious foods to satisfy all palates.
When it comes to food in Taiwan, it is hard to omit beef noodles. Beef noodles can be found everywhere in Taiwan, from street-side stalls to fine restaurants and even 5-star hotels, and the varieties are very plentiful. Spicy hot pot is another special cuisine which is a must-try for those who enjoy hot and spicy food. The spicy hot pot soup is simmered with herbs, Chinese medicine and spices. It is usually called “red soup” because of its color. A wide range of different ingredients such as fresh vegetables, mushrooms, beef, mutton, pork and seafood are displayed for you to choose from. Don't be afraid to experiment – simply mix and match anything you fancy, dip the ingredients into the hot pot soup to cook them and then it's time to enjoy. For those who prefer milder flavored food, there is “white soup”, which is made with clear stock. Or you can go for Yuanyang pot, which consists of both red and white soup so everyone can find a taste to his or her own liking.
If one wants to quickly and cheaply sample some of Taiwan's local foods, probably the easiest way is to go to any of Taiwan's night markets to sample snacks such as oyster noodles, oyster omelet, pan-friend radish cakes, cuttlefish thick soup, meat thick soup, deep-fried chicken fillet, oil sticks, meat balls, fish ball soup and many other choices. For those who are more daring and adventurous, stinky tofu is a must-try. Its name is derived from its unique smell, which is the result of the tofu's fermentation. Its smell may be unpleasant to some, but is considered almost addictive to its fans. In the summertime the various cooling drinks found at the night markets are particularly popular: pearl milk tea, freshly squeezed juices, ice smoothies, and crushed ice topped with fruit and syrup are delicious and very reasonably priced.