One of the seven necessities of Chinese daily life, rice is eaten in many forms throughout the day, including – and especially – at breakfast. Congee is undoubtedly China’s best-known breakfast food, but less famous globally, and wildly popular locally, is the unassuming rice ball (饭团, fàn tuán).
Sometimes called cí fàn tuán (糍饭团, “glutinous rice ball”), this sweet or savory sticky rice wrap is also famous in Japan, where the convenience store favorite, known as onigiri, is eaten any time of day as a quick snack or meal. The Shanghainese version replaces the kombu and seafood with fillings such as crunchy pickled mustard tubers (榨菜, zhà cài) and the weirdly wonderful pork floss (肉松, ròusōng), which is like a sweet-and-savory, fluffy shredded jerky.
Most street corners serving breakfast foods have at least one vendor balling fistfuls of rice from a steaming wooden basket, but Shanghai’s preeminent fàn tuán seller is Zifantuan, a play on words that replaces the ci of “glutinous rice” with zī (粢), an archaic word for sacrificial grains. The ayi who runs the stall has been serving these breakfast treats for 20 years, and when she moved in 2009 from an alleyway to a stall at the entrance of a restaurant behind the landmark Shanghai Center, her loyal fans followed.
At midday, this greasy spoon serves up basic stir-fries and Chinese home-style riffs on blue-plate specials, but in the morning, the restaurant’s tables are occupied with prep work for lunch and fàn tuán are served to-go. Shen Ayi mans a separate operation, the rice ball station – a folding table topped with a large steel tub full of cooked rice and a plastic dollar-store container stuffed with all the possible filling options – all shielded from the elements by a red Coca-Cola awning.
What is it that makes Zifantuan the best? They don’t cut a single corner, starting from the base of steamed “blood rice” (血糯米, xuè nuòmǐ), a naturally crimson-hued sticky variety. As colorful as it is flavorful, this strong foundation holds up against the robust fillings it wraps around, like the specialty minced pork stewed in soy sauce (肉酱, ròu jiàng). Thick and gooey, the viscous soy sauce oozes out of the rice with each juicy bite. For a bit of crunch, add deep-fried crullers (油条, yóutiáo) – you can choose from two varieties: fresh and crispy sticks (脆, cuì) or softened day-old crumbles (老, lǎo). If you have a sweet tooth, ask for a sprinkle of granulated sugar (白砂糖, bái shātáng), or if you’re seeking protein to fuel your way right through lunch, add an egg. Zifantuan has a whole henhouse’s worth, from hard-boiled eggs braised in soy sauce (卤蛋, lǔ dàn) to salted duck eggs (咸蛋, xián dàn).
It takes Shen Ayi less than a minute to ball up each order with her white-gloved hands and stuff it into its plastic to-go bag, but waits can still reach well over half an hour, especially while nearby office towers fill up during morning rush hour. Shen Ayi has put up a sign reminding her clientele to keep chatting to a minimum so as to keep her elderly upstairs neighbors happy, but she doesn’t have to worry. Despite the fact that these filling breakfast treats cost well under $1, the majority of people in line are young, white-collar workers heading to their 9-to-5 jobs. They happily play on their iPhones while lining up, then grab a dozen rice balls to pass out to coworkers and curry favor in the office. Just don’t expect to stop by after rush hour; she sells out around 10:00 every morning.
This article was originally published on August 26, 2013.
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