Fresh tastes for traditional treat

Hu Min
Shanghai's time-honored restaurants and food sellers are experimenting with new zongzi recipes as Dragon Boat Festival approaches.
Hu Min
Fresh tastes for traditional treat
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

People queue to buy zongzi at the Sunya Cantonese Restaurant on Nanjing Road E. 

The Dragon Boat Festival is half a month away, but restaurants and food vendors across Shanghai are already busy preparing the occasion's traditional treat: zongzi. Some famous brands are also putting novel twists on this festival staple.

Zongzi stuffed with bullfrog, satay beef, abalone and yanduxian, a signature Shanghai soup made with bamboo shoots and pork, are among the latest offerings to tempt diners.

The Sunya Cantonese Restaurant on Nanjing Road E., an eater dating back to 1926, is attracting long queues of zongzi buyers these days. The festival falls on June 18 this year.

"My parent prefers the traditional taste of pork, while I like new and creative fillings such as salty yolk and dried meat floss, and abalone, because the traditional taste is sort of greasy for me," said Angela Lin, a university student queuing at Sunya. "I will buy both traditional and new ones."

Fresh tastes for traditional treat
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Sunya's Executive Chef, Huang Renkang, prepares zongzi

Sunya's zongzi are also larger than most, weighing about 500 grams each versus the typical 160 to 200 grams on the market. And they are filled with uncommon ingredients like abalone, sea cucumber, fish maw and ham. Such innovations have proven popular with buyers.

The restaurant is slated to make 1,000 boxes of the zongzi in total this year and sales are by reservation only. Nearly all the 1,000 boxes, each carrying four zongzi, sold out within a week of launch.

"They are the 'Big Mac' of the zongzi field, and each represents one of Sunya's signature cuisines," said Executive Chef Huang Renkang who has been in the dining industry for nearly 40 years. It takes about one and a half minutes for Huang to make a single zongzi.

As part of the restaurant's innovations, a special reed leaf native to Zhaoqing, Guangdong Province, is used to give each zongzi a pleasing color, fragrant smell and tender taste. The main ingredient is imported Thai sticky rice, and mung bean is added to give the seasonal delicacy a chewy and rich flavor.

"The ingredients, weight and shape are all innovated. The innovation started about half a year ago with repeated development and adjustment of the recipe..." said Huang.

"Innovation is the key of time-honored brands, otherwise we will be eliminated from the market, and we receive more youngsters now thanks to our innovations," he added.

Opposite Sunya, the Shanghai First Food Store, another time-honored food retailer, has stocked zongzi with yanduxian, abalone and chestnut, and spicy bullfrog.

"We introduced a variety of new tastes this year, including some wanghong (Internet celebrity) flavors for the first time," said Teng Qiongshu, deputy general manager of the Nanjing Road E. branch of the store.

These new and creative tastes are gaining popularity with sales growing significantly, she said.

"Sales are set to peak next month, with estimated volumes of at least 10,000 yuan per day," Teng explained, up from current daily turnover of about 5,000 to 6,000 yuan.

"Traditional tastes are favored by middle-aged and senior customers, while new tastes are more welcomed by youngsters and locals who get bored with limited choices of traditional flavors."

"Consumers are pursuing new and different flavors of traditional food, and they are willing to give them a try," she said.

Qi Hongfeng, a middle-aged Shanghainese customer, bought 20 zongzi at the store, most of them with meat filling.

"I bought two bullfrog and yanduxian flavors because my daughter often orders bullfrog dishes at restaurants, and yanduxian is a very popular seasonal delicacy of the Shanghainese," said Qi. "But traditional pork filling is the favorite for me."

Wang Jia Sha, a Shanghai restaurant famed for its local snacks, will serve beef and yolk zongzi among its seasonal innovations.

"Overall, salty tastes are more popular than sweet ones like adzuki bean and sweetened bean paste," said a salesperson at the restaurant.

“I know there are some new flavors, but they are sort of strange for me,” said 65-year-old Li Jianjun who bought pork zongzi. “The best and the classic are always the old and traditional, which people at our age are familiar with.”

With a history of more than 2,000 years, the Dragon Boat Festival falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month each year. It is derived from the commemoration of patriotic poet Qu Yuan (340-278 BC), who threw himself into the Miluo River.

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