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The Great Cross-Cultural Zong Zi Taste Test

A meeting of the minds as two of SmartShanghai's professional Chinese food critics taste test 7 interesting zong zi variations ahead of Dragon Boat Festival.
2017-05-15 19:15:07
Anticipating the upcoming Dragon Boat Festival coming up on May 28. SmartShanghai enlisted our two chief Chinese cuisine dining critics to taste test all the new and interesting flavors of zong zi currently on the market in Shanghai. Hooray!

Jin Qian Says: Zong zi, is a type of glutinous rice dumpling that's usually wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves and comes with different fillings. According to legend, Dragon Boat Festival was created to pay tribute to a beloved poet called Qu Yuan, who drowned himself in the river. (As poets are wont to do.) As the story goes, people rushed to the river to save Qu Yuan -- which later became the dragon boat race -- and threw rice dumplings in the river to prevent fish from eating his body...

Morgan Short Says: Ahh yes, zong zi. Delicious rice dumpling snack of legend! Rice dumpling snack of yore! I remember this confection well! From my precocious youth, sitting on the leg of Empress Dowager Cixi as the great guns from the Boxer Rebellion boomed above us, shattered the sky above the Forbidden City. Whenever I taste zong zi I think of a China that only exists in memory, and the smell of British gunpowder flares in my nostrils.


1. Wang Jia Sha - Alkaline water zong with red bean paste (王家沙:豆沙碱水粽)

Available At: Wang Jia Sha

What Is it, Jin? I got this one from Wang Jia Sha on Nanjing Xi Lu. It is a pretty old restaurant -- dubbed "No.1 Snack in Shanghai" no less. An accolade indeed. This year, they are planning to roll out eleven different zong zi flavors. I chose this one expecting it to be challenging: jianshuizong (碱水粽) is a type of a zong zi made with sticky rice soaked in alkaline water. Not a popular flavor as alkaline water usually comes with a weird and strong taste.

Jin Qian Says: The alkaline water taste in this one is actually quite subtle. People usually dip jianshuizong in table sugar, but the red bean paste inside should be enough as a sweetener. They use the leaves of bamboo shoots for this zong zi, which is also quite different from ordinary bamboo leaves -- it's thick, has a beautiful dark brown pattern and it's very nicely and tightly wrapped. Both sticky rice and red bean paste are well-made and cooked properly. For 6.5rmb this is a very good value zong zi.

Morgan Short Says: Ah, right on. "Red bean paste". Love it. My favorite. Red bean tastes like it's still waiting to receive instructions on what it's supposed to taste like. Like it's waiting for an important fax or something. It's just there like, "anyone get that fax yet? Dave? Anyone?"


(But it wasn't too bad.)

2. Wang Bao He - Abalone and pork zong (王宝和:鲍鱼粽)

Available at: Wang Bao He

What Is It, Jin? This "abalone and pork" zong zi comes from legacy restaurant Wang Bao He. The 50rmb-for-two price tag is really expensive considering the simple packaging. When the package is opened, you'll find two sticky zong zi covered with greasy soy sauce.

Jin Says: Quite a mess to eat I have to say, even in the zong zi world. In terms of flavor, it tastes almost the same as normal pork zong zi seasoned with soy sauce. So it's quite underwhelming in terms of creativity. There's a small abalone inside, along with a piece of pork. The two zong zi included in the same package were lacking consistency, one was lean meat yet the other was fatty. They were savory enough but I'd be just as happy if the small abalone was replaced by a shiitake.

Ignorant and Tedious White Guy Says: I've managed to steer clear of abalone 'lo these many years because I loathe experiencing new and exciting things in life. Sounds like it's just going to be full-on horrendous. Abalone. Sounds like a city that sank of the coast of Greece 5 billion years ago. And, to agree with my colleague: I'm "underwhelmed with it in terms of creativity". Let's just take that as a given.

It's a bit oceanic. A bit gummy. A bit like briny beef jerky. It's like the first flavor of Hubba Bubba ever and they seriously needed to re-tool the formula. It's the anti-Hubba Bubba.

3. Xing Hua Lou - Pork zong seasoned with fermented bean curd, Cantonese-style pork and salty duck egg yolk zong (杏花楼:腐乳肉粽,广式鲜肉蛋黄粽)

Available at: Xing Hua Lou

What Is It, Jin? Xing Hua Lou is a few weeks ahead of other legacy stores. They've already rolled out plenty of zong zi flavors including some Cantonese varieties back in late April. While I was selecting, the ayi stood beside me was utterly confused by how many options there were in front of her. For instance, they have two types of pork and salty duck egg yolk zong zi. One of them is the Cantonese-style zong zi, which, despite the familiar "pork and duck egg yolk" flavor, is quite different from Shanghainese version -- it's pyramid shaped, not seasoned by soy sauce but a little oyster sauce, and has bits and pieces of diced shiitake. Their furu rouzong (腐乳肉粽, pork with fermented bean curd) is also a relatively new recipe. They're priced around 10rmb each. Not bad.

Jin Says: Both are pretty good for savory flavor zong zi, I was expecting the furu flavor to be stronger, but it still tastes similar to regular pork ones. The Cantonese-style is more interesting, as the flavor reminds me of lo mai gai rather than zong zi. Although the leaves didn't seem to have a nice fragrance, which makes me wonder how long ago they've been made.

Team White Privilege: Interesting that you detected shades of lo mai gai because what I really came away with was "tastes like a furious placenta".

4. Lao Zheng Xing - Spicy pork sauce zong (老正兴:辣酱粽)

Available at: Lao Zheng Xing

What Is it: Hundred-year-old, Michelin-starred Lao Zheng Xing recently has been giving me the impression that they are too cool to give a shit about what the market considers trendy for Dragon Boat Fest 2017. Like, they didn't even remember to attend the Michelin ceremony to get their award. This year, they are selling only two types of zong zi, none of those "pork and duck egg yolk", "red bean paste" flavors. And these are two exclusive ones: jiangfang (酱方, their signature pork with fermented bean curd) and lajiang (辣酱, spicy pork sauce), priced at 10rmb to 11rmb. Our editor-at-large forced me to find a gong bao chicken flavor zong zi and the latter one is the closest I could get.

Jin Says: The green leaves look really fresh and have a nice smell, it's skillfully wrapped and looks neat outside. But the sticky rice fell apart a bit too easily. There's not much diced pork in it, and I also found the spicy pork not so spicy at all.

Why Are We Even Asking Him: I have to say, I respect these guys a lot for not even attending the Michelin ceremony to get their star. That's like not attending the City Weekend awards times a million. Bob Dylan is holding his Nobel Peace prize looking at these guys like "OH BURN."

Gotta say, though, the blasé-ness with which they received their Michelin award just surges through this zong zi. Kind of tastes like astronaut food you would give to an astronaut if you couldn't be arsed whether they made it back to earth or not.

5. Cao Ai Ni - Brown rice, black sticky rice and coix seed zong, and brown rice pork zong (糙爱你 - 血糯米薏米糙米粽,糙米五花肉粽)

What Is it: Sticky rice is an essential part of Chinese diet, especially during our traditional festivals. But everyone knows it's not that good for digestion. These two zong zi are from a young, online zong zi brand called "糙爱你". Their major selling point is to replace traditional sticky rice with brown rice, creating "healthier" varieties such as "black sticky rice and coix seed" and "green bean and lotus seeds" zong zi. They also packed their products in a minimally-designed paper bag rather than the over-the-top packaging that a lot of old brands use.

Jin Says: In terms of flavor, they taste pretty much the same as their "unhealthy" counterparts. The same with texture, which means they managed to make brown rice soft and fluffy, and also stick together very well. Kind of impressive, I guess. These are small and not cheap. The 158rmb package includes both pork and vegetarian zong zi, ten in total, along with a small steamer.

No One Pay Attention to What Morgan Says. These Things Are Pretty Lovely: In the spirit of Qu Yuan, drowned poet of Dragon Boat Festival, I present my review in the form of free verse:

It kind of tasted like licking the floor at Buddies.

And that Buddies has a cat.

A sick cat.

Sick on the floor.

At Buddies.


Playing the Home Game: Get Your Own Zong Zi

Where to buy zong zi

Jin Says: Local supermarkets and convenience stores are all starting to have them on the shelves now. There're also many ayi and vendors selling their homemade ones in the alleys or streetside. And of course, you can also buy them online.

If you prefer something with better packaging and quality control, the most famous zong zi brand is Wu Fang Zhai (五芳斋), from Jiaxing, Zhejiang, which is the biggest zong zi manufacturer in China. (Noted: Xing Hua Lou also has Wu Fang Zhai zong zi and snack shops all over Shanghai, but Zhejiang Wu Fang Zhai filed a lawsuit against them, so they're not the same thing).

Wu Fang Zhai has partnered with Disney so the ones with Micky Mouse or Captain America on the packages you see in the supermarkets are from them. They also have Disney princesses and Star Wars themed gift boxes priced at 129rmb for eight. Usually, contain wicked flavors like chocolate or orange and apricot. Those "special flavors" mentioned above are mostly available at their shops.

How To Eat Zong Zi

Jin Says:

If you buy the handmade ones directly from the shop they will usually tell you if it's ready to eat or needs to be re-heated. The best ways to cook zong zi is by steaming or boiling for around 10-20 minutes depending on the size. You can, of course, microwave it for around 3 to 5 minutes, too.

But in that case, it would be a bit hard to cook it evenly.

Morgan Says: ...I agree 100%.