Video: China's tastiest 'dragon boat dumplings'
This video shows how Zhujiajiao grandmas wrap local rice dumplings, or zongzi (粽子). They can make one zongzi every 15 seconds. (Video by Jin Ge)
Every year around the Dragon Boat Festival, the same foodie debate erupts in China: where are the best rice dumplings made?
Know as zong zi, rice dumplings are a traditional food for Dragon Boat Festival, which is celebrated every year on the fifth day of the fifth month on the Lunar Calendar.
One of the best places for travelers to enjoy the bamboo leaf-wrapped snack is Zhujiajiao (朱家角), a watertown located 48 kilometers southwest of downtown Shanghai.
The 1,700-year-old town is well-know for the “grandma rice dumplings,” or apo zong (阿婆粽) in Mandarin. Every year before the Dragon Boast Festival, dumpling hunters from downtown and nearby cities squeeze into the town’s narrow streets for a bag, or a bus load of fresh apo zongs.
Straw is the key
Not a brand of zongzi, apo zong is named after their makers, apo or grandmothers who live in the area. A typical apo zong is stuffed with pork and rice, or red beans and rice, or red-bean paste with rice.
Shi Ying (施颖, in the video above), 55, is the apo behind one of Zhujiajiao’s best-known rice dumpling vendors Xiaotian Apo Zong (263 Bei Da Jie, Zhujiajiao 朱家角镇北大街263号). She explains that the most important feature of her dumplings is the straw.
Since Zhujiajiao is surrounded by farms, the apos have freshly harvested rice and straw at their disposal.
“Shanghai [downtown] residents love the aroma of the straw in the zongzi -- it’s very fragrant,” Shi explains.
The straw-bound zongzi in Zhujiajiao is also unique in another way: they are shaped like pillows. This makes the Zhujiajiao zongzi much larger than the more commonly seen pyramid ones.
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Most shops have more than one apo in the kitchen, with often a full team working to meet demand over the Dragon Boat Festival.
In Xiaotian Apo Zong, the apos say they can make 1,800-2,000 zongzi a day and they can wrap up a traditional pork dumpling from scratch in 15 seconds (or less for smaller ones).
Sales record: 30,000 dumplings a day
Apo zong’s technique is passed down from generation to generation, and Shi is the third member of her family to run the Xiaotian Apo Zong stall, joining her two aunts.
“We use our teeth to secure the straw [while making the zongzi],” says Shi.
“The reason why older apos retire is because their teeth can no longer bite [properly] to secure the straw,” continues Shi. “If that happens, [she] can not make zongzi anymore, or can only make them very slowly.”
Before every Dragon Boat Festival, Zhujiajiao’s apo zong street is always packed with dumpling hunters from downtown Shanghai or nearby cities, stuffing their bags with as many pillow-shaped dumplings as possible.
Some buyers have been known to pick up more than 1,000 zongzi at a time, and the more successful apo zong shops, such as Xiaotian, say that they sell up to 30,000 dumplings a day, for about RMB 6 each.
Rice dumpling industry
With its fame and popularity, apo zong has gone beyond a grassroots specialty and turned into an industry.
Although Zhujiajiao started with only one apo zong shop, the 1.5-square-kilometer town has now devoted its landmark street, Bei Da Jie (北大街), to promoting apo zong with more than 25 shops.
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The success of Shanghai’s apo zong rice dumpling is directly related to Zhujiajiao’s tourism development, which the city began to push in 1998.
This year's Dragon Boat Festival is June 23.
How to get to Zhujiajiao’s rice dumpling street: Take the Huzhu express bus (沪朱高速快线, RMB 12) from Pu’an Lu and Yan’an Dong Lu to Zhujiajiao. The trip will take about an hour. Huzhu express bus departs from downtown every 30 minutes.
Originally published June 2011. Updated June 2012.