Qingtuan, a traditional Chinese holiday food, gets a modern makeover

Society & Culture

Companies are continuing to find new twists for a traditional holiday food: the qingtuan, a glutinous rice dumpling consumed during Qingming Festival.

Yesterday was Tomb-Sweeping Day in China, also known as Qingming Festival, a national holiday in which people honor their ancestors (traditionally, by sweeping their tombs and other rituals). The food commonly associated with this holiday is the qīngtuán 青团, a glutinous rice dumpling dyed green with mugwort juice or wormwood grass. Though customarily prepared with fillings such as red bean paste or black sesame paste, qingtuan have lately become a vehicle through which classic brands have strived to show off their inventiveness.

In recent years, Chinese consumers have gone wild for time-honored brand Xing Hua Lou’s qingtuan flavors, such as salted egg yolk, cashew nuts, and dried meat floss. Before the holiday, customers stand in lines stretching down city blocks to get a taste of these new variations before they sell out. Though qingtuan have traditionally been made green for centuries (qing literally means “verdant”), the brand has even released pink qingtuan filled with strawberries and cream, as well as purple qingtuan made from sweet potato. 

Well-known Shanghai establishment Shen Dacheng is another bakery putting an original spin on classic qingtuan — with a special variety made from matcha and milk and another (more divisive) flavor featuring crayfish.

Matcha-and-milk qingtuan (photo by Li Anlan)

Alibaba’s Hema Fresh Market has even unveiled qingtuan filled with sour pickled cabbage and fish, inspired by the spicy dish suancaiyu that is widely eaten in Chongqing.

Without the wormwood leaves giving qingtuan their green color, are these treats still qingtuan? Some would argue that the new variations are modern inventions, with little historic tradition left in their identity. “I don’t see the point of eating qingtuan at Qingming Festival if it’s just to help brands go viral for the strange concoctions they come up with,” said He Ruiqi, a food critic in Hebei province. “At this point, the qingtuan creations have ceased to be about thoughtful innovation, but about the 15 minutes of social media fame.”

The tradition of serving qingtuan at Qingming Festival is believed to date back to the Zhou dynasty more than two millennia ago, when the food was a common ritual during Cold Food Festival observances that commemorated the death of nobleman Jiè Zǐtuī 介子推. Over the centuries, Cold Food Festival customs merged with those of Qingming Festival, and the practice of eating qingtuan has, so far, stood the test of time.

Today, not everyone is opposed to newfangled qingtuan, despite their minimal resemblance to the classic variety. Many believe that the innovation helps to keep the ancient food tradition alive by getting younger people interested in them. “Time-honored brands need to stay fresh by evolving and being creative, otherwise they’ll get left behind by more contemporary brands,” said Yang Zhenxi, a food industry analyst.

However, many Chinese people simply aren’t interested in the debate about whether these novel qingtuan iterations are appealing or objectionable. Many quietly default to eating qingtuan the way they’ve been served for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. “Qingming Festival is about honoring our deceased loved ones and ancestors. So on this day, I prefer to enjoy qingtuan the way my forebears would have enjoyed them. Green, sweet, with red bean paste,” said Hu Yingjie, a resident of Suzhou in Jiangsu province. “That’s the way my grandparents and parents served them, and that’s how I’ll serve my own children.”

Clockwise from top left: egg yolk and meat floss; fresh flower milk; amber Longjing; molten mango; four seasons; classic red bean paste; passion fruit lactobacillus; lactobacillus red bean