Belle of the ball
Sticky rice balls (cifan) are considered one of the four “backbones” of breakfast in Shanghai, along with fried bread sticks (youtiao), flatbread (dabing) and soybean milk.
That’s perhaps why a small food stall selling sticky rice balls on a backstreet off prosperous Nanjing Road W. has been such a rags-to-riches story.
The little eatery, operated by Anhui Province native Shen Xiaoxiu, was once one of the most popular breakfast stops in the city, where people would stand in long queues for up to two hours, and even local celebrities showed up at dawn.
Today, Shen presides over a chain of eateries with more than 200 franchises around the country.
“To be honest, I prefer running my own little shop to running a company,” she says. “Now I feel everything is getting complicated, and I kind of miss the good old days.”
Shen left her hometown of Wuhu about 30 years ago, seeking opportunities and prosperity in the big city. She worked as an hourly paid housekeeper for a stretch, but that didn’t provide enough income to support her family. So she decided to develop her own business.
“I often bought sticky rice balls for breakfast, and I loved the taste,” she says. “So I tried to make them myself and then set up a small booth on Nanyang Road.”
Shen called her stall simply Nanyang Road Rice Ball. At the beginning, she made traditional rice balls from glutinous white rice, with a fried bread stick and sugar as stuffing.
It was far from successful because the fare was just like thousands of other breakfast stalls in Shanghai. To be a success, Shen realized that she had to be different.
So she started researching new recipes, aiming to create sticky rice balls unlike any others.
The first attempt replaced white rice with more nutritious black sticky rice.
“I sold both types of balls and discovered that the unsold ones were always those made with white rice,” she said. “So I reduced the number of balls made with white glutinous rice and eventually gave them up altogether.”
Shen made changes to the stuffing as well. Eggs replaced the fried bread sticks. She figured that eggs were a good breakfast food and would give people more protein to start the day.
Three flavors of egg rice balls are now sold: deep-fried hardboiled eggs, marinated eggs and salted eggs. Sliced fried bread sticks, gravy, turnip pickles and dried meat floss are also stuffed inside the rice balls.
Shen says she never had any formal training as a cook but she has always loved cooking. She kept adjusting the recipes to find the most ideal tastes.
A “luxury” version of the rice ball soon became so popular. That’s when the long queues first appeared as people came from all over the city to her food stall. At the beginning, the booth was open only from 5am to 10am.
“Many of my customers were young white-collar workers,” she says. “They would make posts about my rice balls online.”
Shen recalls the days when she got up at 1am every day to steam the black sticky rice and cook the stuffing at home before carrying them to the booth on a tricycle.
“The neighbors used to complain that the queuing customers were too noisy so early in the morning,” Shen says. “And because many people drove to the booth, narrow Nanyang Road suffered traffic congestion every morning.”
Many people living nearby have been loyal customers since the beginning.
“One old lady often bought breakfast for her grandson when he was a little boy,” Shen says. “Now he is over 20 and one of my frequent customers.”
Because the booth is not far from the Shanghai Media Group, it was not uncommon for media celebrities to stop by — often on the sly so as not to arouse attention.
“One celebrity — I can’t remember the name — wanted to buy rice balls for breakfast without attracting attention, so he asked me if I could open the booth even earlier every morning. I actually hated the idea, but I opened at 4:30am so celebrities could drive up while everybody else was still sleeping.”
Shen thought she would keep the small booth until retirement, but things took an unexpected turn.
In 2014, when her nephew returned from studying in the United States, he offered to help her turn the little business into a chain of eateries.
“He had heard about the long queues and told me there was a big market for my rice balls,” Shen says. “I thought we could give it a try.”
Shen and her nephew registered a company. Because it’s against the regulation to register a company using the name of a street, the business was renamed Zhenyuan, although old patrons still call it Nanyang Road Rice Ball.
The company rented a central kitchen to make the rice balls according to a standard recipe, though Shen still does all the cooking for the Nanyang Road branch.
She personally trained the operator of each franchise so that the rice balls were perfect in appearance and met all hygienic standards. Opening hours of the new outlets were extended into the evening so people could buy the rice balls as snacks.
“I stepped down from the Nanyang Road branch two years ago to do all the training and other office work,” Shen says. “But I found that I missed the cooking and decided to go back and work in my first shop.”
Still, she is willing to move with the times. After the Chinese New Year next month, Zhenyuan will undergo another name change and begin offering a new afternoon tea package.
“I still want to challenge myself to see where I can go with this,” she says.