Don't pass on the zongzi when they come around fresh. When done right, they're one of the best Chinese snacks, though they contain enough calories for a whole meal. The classic rou zong (meat zongzi) has thick chunks of fatty preserved pork tucked into sticky rice and wrapped in some kind of leaf. After the triangles get steamed or boiled, the pork partially melts and tastes like hongshao rou. So good. Some have salty duck egg yolk, red bean, or whatever else people think up. Meat zongzi are more of a southern proclivity (as is Dragon-Boat racing -- more rivers). Not everyone loves zongzi though. Many claim sticky rice is difficult to digest.
As explained in our Dragon-Boat guide, the Zongzi story is dark. Back in the day (340–278 BC, Warring States Period), there was this poet named Qu Yuan who worked for the government and loved his country, but the king was not feeling his suggestions. Depressed, Qu Yuan committed suicide by jumping into the Milou River clutching a rock. The public feared the vicious fish would eat the poet's body, so they made thousands of glutinous rice Zongzi and threw them in the river to distract the fish.
It's an old story, and long before the Avocado Lady and the Beer Lady, there were the Zongzi Ladies. Ahead of Dragon-Boat weekend, we hung out with two of them -- one on Xinle Lu, and another on Changle Lu -- to hear their tales and try to learn the craft.
Changle Lu Zongzi Grandma
The sunny Changle Lu Zongzi Grandma hails from Ningbo, and she's 73 years old. This time of year, her and several other grandmas always out in an alley on Changle Lu, between Xiangyang Lu and Southern Belle. For most of the year, she works as a tailor, making and sewing clothes for her neighbors.
"Come, Come, Let me show you something!" She was so excited to introduce me to her sewing machine. She removed everything from the machine just for this picture. "Do I look ok? Haha, I'm gonna be on a foreign TV show later!"
During the Dragon-Boat days, she sits on the corner smiling and selling zongzi to everyone. After making each zongzi, she places them in a washbasin, the same kind many use to wash their face. You can see exactly what goes in them, and it takes her about 25 seconds to make each one.
She has proudly participated in some neighborhood committee (居委会) zongzi making competitions. Just for fun, of course.
"I taught myself to make zongzi. I learned from watching other people, and tried many times. It's all about practicing. Lots of young kids come to buy some, as it's too much work for them to make some. To make a good zongzi you have to practice the way you hold the zongzi. If you hold it correctly, the zongzi will sit tight in your hand, ready to be wrapped up tightly."
Her zongzi go for six kuai each. Honestly, it's tasty, but nothing really special. The rice is too sticky, and the whole triangle falls apart. Not much meat either. But her warm smile makes up for the zongzi's shortcomings.
Xinle Lu Zongzi Ayi
One block away, Xinle Lu Zongzi Ayi is the opposite kind of character. She can be dismissive and aloof, and sometimes scowls. Another SmartShanghai writer tried to buy a zongzi from her this morning and she basically ignored them, despite having a full pail of zongzi next to her. "Mei you!" Turns out she had already sold out for the next 48 hours. "A Shanghai newspaper and many other media interviewed me. I don't need them anymore." I couldn't figure out her attitude, until she later told me she had a rough time in her early life, and her husband said she has difficulty hearing.
But here's the thing -- her zongzi is incredible. She charges 12.5rmb for a salted duck yolk and big meat zongzi (咸蛋黄肉粽). Twice the price of Changle Lu Grandma's zongzi, but twice as big, with two-three huge pieces of pork, which she preserves in Laochou dark soy sauce (老抽酱油), salt, and other seasonings a day before.
Most of her neighbors on Xinle Lu -- near the Five-Star Hainan Chicken Rice -- know about her and her zongzi, which only come out during the Dragon-Boat Festival. She chills at home most evenings, after hardcore days of zongzi-making that start at 6am. She cares deeply about quality. "When I see a fly land on the salted yolk at [other] street stores, I just can't stand it. I have to make sure no one gets sick after eating my zongzi."
Duck yolk blended with the sticky rice...
After watching her make zongzi for a while, I asked if she could teach me some skills. She couldn't hear me well, of course, but her husband was really nice and convinced her. As soon as I started to fold the zongzi leaf, four Ayis ran up yelling in Shanghainese, trying to teach me how to fold it. Well, they weren't actually yelling. That's just how middle–aged Shanghainese women talk. One Ayi kept tapping me on the shoulder every time she said something.
Xinle Lu Zongzi Ayi's husband loves to watch the Dragon–Boat races on TV, because they don't have time to go watch in person. They did mention travel plans for Dragon-Boat Saturday though. I asked if they had ever thrown zongzis in the river, like in the story. They just laughed and said that's a waste -- no one does that now. She taught me the easy way to make pillow shaped zongzi, and it's actually pretty simple. Just five steps in total, but like peeling fruit for cocktails, this takes a lot of practice to get it right. She has serious skills -- this is her zongzi.
Those Ayis hanging around said that nowadays, young people are lazy about everything. They don't make zongzi. Convenience stores sell inferior versions all year round. Guess convenience is the source of laziness. Hopefully some youth pick up the skills and carry the homemade triangles into the next generation.
But for now, there are many zongzi ladies. These are but two. Many more stories to be told.
Interviews were conducted in Shanghainese by the author, who also did the translation