One of the joys of living in a foreign country is never knowing exactly what I’m signing up for. This past Sunday was an excellent case in point. About one week ago, I heard through the grapevine that Nanjing Impressions restaurant was hosting a Dragon Boat Festival workshop where they would teach families about the traditions around the festival and show them how to make zongzi, those sticky rice triangles wrapped in bamboo leaves. Naturally, I wrote to the organizers to see if there was still space for Reina and I to attend.
After a brief online interview, we were warmly invited and informed that there would also be a competition centered on making zongzi. Well, how hard could it be? Reina has made them several years in a row at her previous school and I’ve wrapped a few things in the kitchen. True, mostly leftovers and sandwiches, but I was certain I had the chops for bamboo leaves too, though I had no delusions about winning any contests.
For some reason, I had never heard of Nanjing Impressions, but judging from the line of people waiting for tables outside the large restaurant, the food must be good. We were ushered in to a special area and I was impressed how everyone who greeted us knew my daughter’s name. I also noticed the workshop was exclusive – there were only six families invited. Despite the central location of the restaurant, the other expat family got lost and after a 45-minute wait, the organizers decided to press on. By now I was certain that the cultural workshop was largely a competition and my team was short one parent. Uh oh.
After a short introduction about the holiday and the reason for families making and eating zongzi, the kids were asked a few questions. Perhaps because my daughter heard the explanation twice (in Chinese and English) or because she was the eldest in attendance, she knew all the answers and was eager to win, so she nailed the second question and got a prize. Thankfully the pressure was off…for her.
Next came the demonstration by the chef showing how to make a perfect zongzi.. I was still contemplating how to get the leave perfectly arranged before I realized the three-minute parent contest had begun. I only managed to make three, including the one the chef had made. Round two – fail. For round three, the kids had a competition and parents were allowed to assist, but not make them outright. Reina managed to make more than I did, but judging by the piles the other “kids” made, the parents did a wee bit more than just help. I thought that would be the end of it, but then they said there would be a parent/child competition where the child could only use the left hand and the parent the right. Suddenly, fate had smiled on us as I was certain Reina was the only lefty in the bunch. The clock started and we patiently worked together folding the leaf, holding it steady, spooning in rice, and tying the string. When the clock stopped, we had two perfectly made zongzi and the audience was noticeably impressed. We crushed the competition.
The end result was that Reina netted enough gift coupons that we can afford to come back with the entire family and enjoy a meal. We also ended up on CCTV, an online news site, and a radio show. But the most interesting take away for me was the information about the raw duck egg. If you can balance one on end, you are said to have good fortune for the rest of the year. Naturally, there was a good-natured competition to see if anyone could do it and a couple of parents managed to get their eggs to stand. Note: if you crack the bottom of the egg, it will work, but sadly this is considered cheating.
Thanks to everyone at Nanjing Impressions for the interesting workshop and cultural lesson. I think we are finally ready to throw our aprons into the ring and go up against an Iron Chef. I just hope the chef isn’t left handed.
Photos by Christopher Lay