Eating rice balls in a pigsty became a tradition
Before a dish can appeal to the palate, it must first appeal to the eyes.
Color can make food and drink more attractive and add some extra fun and uniqueness to ordinary ingredients.
To brighten the food on our plates in a healthy way, vibrantly colored juice from spinach, carrots and amaranth is often used as natural pigment to impart green, orange and fuchsia colors to food and drinks. These extra ingredients may not add a prominent taste to a dish but play an important role in presenting a visual feast.
In China, colorful vegetable juices are often added to dough to give plain noodles, dumplings and buns a burst of color, making them very popular in recipes for children.
Food coloring also has cultural value in Chinese culinary traditions. For example, qingtuan, the sweet glutinous rice ball that gains its green color from the juice of wormwood leaves, is a traditional food for the Qingming Festival. In this case, the color may not be as attractive as the more common vegetable juices but symbolizes deeper meanings in history and heritage.
Here are two special rice dishes made with lesser-known natural food colorings — wumifan, the black rice that’s popular in Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Anhui provinces, and five-color rice, which is found in Yunnan Province.
Wumifan: The black rice to start summer
Wumifan (also wufan), or black rice, is a folk dish traditionally eaten on the eighth day of the fourth lunar month, which is also known as the Wufan Festival.
The glossy wumifan is not made with the natural black kernelled rice, but ordinary glutinous rice stained with the juice of nanzhu (vaccinium bracteatum) leaves, a plant that’s also known as the wufan tree in China because of this particular culinary use.
Wumifan is eaten in several places across China, and it’s especially popular in Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces.
In some places, the black rice is eaten on the third day of the third lunar month.
It’s also called qingjingfan because the juice of nanzhu leaves is green, which is regarded as the color of east in Daoism that echoes spring.
There are different tales of how wumifan was created in ancient China. One story is that when Sun Bin, the military strategist in the Warring States period (476-221BC), was locked in a pigsty after he was framed by Pang Juan, an old prison guard boiled glutinous rice with nanzhu leaves and made black rice balls that looked like pig poo, then secretly gave them to Sun. When Pang saw Sun eating “pig poo,” he let his guard down.
Eating the rice balls not only helped Sun to survive, but also made him stronger. Eventually he escaped and got his revenge by defeating and killing Pang. Eating wumifan became a tradition that symbolizes seeking protection.
Another theory is that Buddhism started to include qingjingfan in the diet in the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279) and the dish was cooked on the eighth day of the fourth lunar month which is the Buddha’s Birthday.
The recipe for wumifan varies from ancient times to today.
In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the method was to sun-dry steamed glutinous rice and then infuse it in the nanzhu leaves’ juices, repeating the process nine times until the rice hardened for easy storage. It’s then eaten later after soaking in boiling water.
Today, the dish is cooked and eaten on the same day without such a complicated process. Thoroughly rinse about 50 grams of nanzhu leaves and boil in water for 30 minutes, remove the leaves and then cook 500 grams of glutinous rice on a low heat in the water for two hours until it turns black.
Wumifan can be enjoyed with sugared osmanthus flowers for a sweeter taste.
The five-color rice: A Yunnan special
In Yunnan Province and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, the five-color rice made by the Bouyei people is a local specialty that boasts vibrant colors of red, yellow, blue, purple and black. In Guangxi, it’s also called wufan.
A legend related to five-color rice is that three brothers named Zhuang Dong, Zhuang Dai and Bouyei were living happy lives by the riverbank. When the two elder brothers got married, they left the beautiful and abundant land to the younger brother Bouyei, who wouldn’t stay. But the two brothers convinced Bouyei and the day they separated was the third day of the third lunar month. They paid tribute to ancestors, sang and danced, and cooked the colorful rice dish to wish each other a long and prosperous life.
The dish is made with the juice of some edible wild plants. In Yunnan, the colorful rice symbolizes harvest and good fortune and is often eaten on the third day of the third lunar month.
The red, yellow and blue colors are extracted from the wild plants’ roots, stems, flowers and leaves, and with the three basic colors, purple and black can be mixed.
The process of making five-color rice is complicated. First, glutinous rice is rinsed and sun-dried, and at the same time people go into the mountains to pick different wild plants that have the necessary colors. For example, the color red can be extracted from a plant called honglancao (red blue grass) and yellow comes from the corolla of huangfanhua (Buddleja officinalis). The plants are then brewed to make different colorings.
The glutinous rice is soaked in the colorings so that they are fully infused with the colors. The rice is then rinsed in water and steamed until fully cooked.
To save the trouble of dying the rice from scratch, you can buy pre-made colorful rice to cook at home. But it’s important to examine the quality, as some sellers use cheap artificial colorings to replace the natural pigment from plants.