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

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI -

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.

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