Not your average rice ball
Every year during spring, Shanghainese people brave long queues to get their hands on a special green snack that is steeped in history and tradition
restaurant and snack shop, Wang JiaSha.
The traditional snack is an important element in the annual Qingming Festival ( Tomb-sweeping Festival) when people visit the graves of their ancestors and family members. The tradition of eating green rice balls on this occasion dates back to thousands of years ago in southern China when people deemed it as a form of tribute to their ancestors. The grave would be tidied before the rice balls are presented together with some dishes as well as wine and fruit.
Founded in 1945 by Yao Zichu, a former advertising executive, Wang JiaSha started as an eatery offering typical Shanghai snacks like xiao long bao (dumplings), shrimp-filled wontons and steamed sticky rice topped with “eight treasures” that comprises different types of dried plums and nuts.
It was not until the 1990’s that Wang JiaSha added the green rice ball to its menu that had already spanned 300 types of snacks and pastries. Named after a small neighborhood in the same area it was in, Wang JiaSha today has seven outlets in Shanghai and five in Hong Kong.
According to Liu, an average of 50,000 rice balls, priced at 4 yuan ($0.6) a piece, are sold every day at Wang JiaSha before the peak period that falls on the week of Qingming. Sales numbers often triple during the peak. Liu expects to sell up to 2.4 million balls this year, a 10 percent increase from last year.
“When you can have tomatoes and celeries all year round, it is only natural that people flock toward something that is seasonal,” said Liu.
Indeed, it is only during this two-month period every year that the most authentic and best-tasting green rice balls are made. Apart from sticky rice and red bean paste, the most important ingredient used is the mugwort, an aromatic herb that has been used to treat asthma, inflammation and viral infections.
The leaves and buds of the mugwort plant, which are best picked right after the arrival of spring, are smashed and turned into juice that is used to give the rice balls their distinctive color.
While the rice ball filled with sweet red bean paste is the most traditional and popular one, other types have emerged over the years and people can now also buy alternatives filled with Chinese herbs and tofu, salted egg yolk as well as sesame.
In 2015, the skill of making the snack was listed as one of the 41 new Shanghai Intangible Cultural Heritages by the municipal government, alongside other crafts such as paper cutting and comic painting.
But Liu, a former pastry chef, said that making the perfect rice ball requires little skill. Instead, it is all about finding the right ingredient — wild mugwort. At Wang JiaSha, the chefs only use wild mugwort from Ningbo, Zhejiang province.
In contrast, many food factories and snack shops use a powdered form of the plant instead. This practice is believed to have originated in northern China because the low rainfall in that region during the start of spring means that the plant is not “juicy” enough for use. Furthermore, using the powder speeds up the process and in turn results in the products having a longer shelf life.
“We are one of the few that use fresh mugwort to make the rice ball. The unique aroma it provides is what makes customers come back for more,” said Liu.
When the restaurant opens at 7 am, the queue to buy the rice balls at Wang JiaSha usually measures more than 100 meters. In line are people of all ages, and Liu noted that the rice ball has in recent times grown in popularity among the younger generation.
One of those in the queue was a 56-year-old Shanghainese woman surnamed Zhao, who said she was buying the rice balls for her son and not as offerings for Qingming Festival.
“This restaurant is my son’s favorite when it comes to this snack. Our ancestors aren’t picky like my son — they will make do with those from the supermarkets or other shops. Besides, they can buy whatever they want with the hell money we burn for them,” joked Zhao.
When you can have tomatoes and celeries all year round, it is only natural that people flock toward something that is seasonal.”
general manager of Wang JiaSha, a 71-year-old restaurant
Green rice balls are available all year round, but their demand spikes a few weeks ahead of the annual Qingming Festival.