Similar to Japanese mochi, qingtuan, or literally ‘green rice ball’, is a glutinous rice dumpling dyed green with mugwort juice (or wormwood grass) and traditionally stuffed with fillings such as red bean paste or black sesame paste.
Like many other Chinese dishes, it is hard to pinpoint when the sweet round dumpling was first invented but it was already a popular snack in the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907). Some suggest it came from a dining culture related to the Hanshi Festival (hanshi means ‘Cold Food’). Some historians believe the dumpling was also boosted by the tradition of tomb sweeping during the Qingming Festival where the Chinese were forbade the use of fire and could only eat food that didn’t need to be heated.
As a result, cold food such as qingtuan, which can be prepared in advance, became popular.
Traditionally, most of the qingtuan makers are located within the Jiangnan region around the Yangtze River Delta. The reason is because wormwood grass is grown in abundance in those areas and the plant is less commonly seen in the country’s northern parts. Some qingtuan enthusiasts have tried to substitute spinach juice but those who’ve tasted the result argue that it doesn’t give the dumplings the right taste.
Why is it in the news again?
Last year, the more than a millennium-old dumpling suddenly went viral. The trend started when a few food makers began embracing the livestreaming trend, promoting exotic flavours such as salted egg yolk with pork floss, frog and even hairy crab on popular online platforms. Those who like their qingtuan sweet can now choose novelties like strawberries and cream and matcha and milk. The traditional snack has been so popular among young people that even KFC has launched its seasonal special qiantuan offering, which featured dried pork floss and salty egg york.
“At this point, the qingtuan creations have ceased to be about thoughtful innovation, but about the 15 minutes of social media fame,” one food critic scorned.
But no matter, before long, long queues appeared outside of retail shops that sold the delicacy, especially those in the Jiangnan region, which includes cities like Suzhou, Nanjing and Wuxi. Some were in such high demand that people lined up long before the shops opened just to be able to secure two small boxes of freshly made qingtuan.
This year, however, qingtuan makers faced a different problem. That’s because the glutinous ball became the latest bit of collateral damage in the recent Covid outbreak. Many factories, caught in lockdowns, were forced to shut down and missed the most lucrative window of Tomb Sweeping Day, which fell on April 5 this year. One factory said it had over 10,000 boxes of unsold qingtuan stuck in cold storage with no way of selling them.
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