Steve Dolinsky, a food writer and avid traveler, was making a quick swing through Hong Kong recently when he stumbled across a traditional dragon boat race.

It'd be hard to miss spotting one there this time of year. The annual races, featuring long paddle-powered boats often ornamented with dragon heads, go on all over the city for three days straight as part of the Tuen Ng, or Dragon Boat Festival. This year's kicked off on May 30.

But more enticing for the food writer, perhaps, were the traditional rice dumplings called zongzi, sold on just about every street corner during the festival. They have a surprisingly deep connection to the boat races.

The Dragon Boat Festival tradition commemorates the Chinese patriotic poet Qu Yuan, who drowned himself in 277 BC. Susan Jung, food editor for the South China Morning Post, tells the story as she knows it: “This general or minister in China a long time ago was accused of treason, so, he committed suicide by drowning. ... He was so beloved by the people that they threw rice dumplings into the water so that the fish would eat the rice dumplings rather than his body.”

Indeed, legend has it that Minister Qu was slandered by corrupt officials and was forced to leave his home state of Chu. While in exile, he wrote fine Chinese poetry. 

Steve Dolinsky

But it’s said that when Qu found out that the capital of Chu had fallen to Qin attackers, he despaired and waded into a river and drowned himself. There were desperate attempts to save him. Various stories that have been handed down suggest that some people furiously paddled down the river to rescue him, others beat drums to ward away evil spirits, and others threw rice dumplings into the river so that the fish wouldn’t feed on him.

These days, the glutinous rice treats are steamed in bamboo or banana leaves and filled with things like salted egg yolk, pork belly, and mung bean.

Related: The savory treat of the Dragon Boat Festival and the aunties who make them

“There's not a lot of texture, there's no crispiness to it, [it's] mostly soft, chewy, rib-sticking rice," Dolinsky said, adding that they're kind of like Chinese tamales. 

Zongzi are cheap and filling treats, and everywhere during the festival. But if a sticky rice dumpling is not your cup of tea, it’s apparently also OK to toss zongzi to the fish in any nearby river.

Steve Dolinsky

From PRI's The World ©2017 PRI