While there are no big feasts that happen on Qingmingjie (清明节), otherwise known as Tomb Sweeping Day, the holiday is rife with vibrant holiday snacks. Every region has its own: in Jiangnan they eat qingtuan (青团, green glutinous rice balls stuffed with red bean paste); in mid-east coast provinces like Zhejiang, Jiangxi and Anhui qingmingguo (清明果), a crescent-shaped qingtuan with fried fillings, is popular; meanwhile qingmingluo (清明螺), or snails, are eaten in South China and sanzi (馓子) in both South China and North China. What do they have in common? Not much except they’re mostly green in honor of the qing part of Qingmingjie’s name, and make a tasty snack for both you and your ancestors.
But the Qingmingjie food that captured my imagination this year wasn’t any you’re likely to see in most parts of China: it’s called wuse nuomifan (五色糯米饭), or “five-colored glutinous rice” and it’s one of the most exquisite zhushi (主食), or staple foods, you’re likely to find in China.
To find it, you’ll need to head to the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, at the very south of China bordering Vietnam, and hunt down its visionary creators: the Zhuang minority (壮族), for whom five-colored rice serves as a traditional food served to guests or on special occasions.
So why eat the rice on Tomb Sweeping Day? The Zhuang believe that five-colored rice symbolizes wugu fengdeng (五谷丰登), or the abundant grain harvest that symbolizes a rich and happy live. (五谷 literally means “five kinds of staple foods” and here refers to all kinds of staple foods.) It is, in other words, a worthy sentiment for a day dedicated to both honoring life and celebrating the spring.
This is why on Qingmingjie, every Zhuang household produces a stock of five-colored rice to bring to the community’s lively singing celebrations (common on holidays or as a means of courting), and as a sacrifice to ancestors and gods.
Symbolic importance aside, there’s another reason to love five-colored rice: it’s gorgeous. Blooming like a garden of black, red, yellow, purple and white flowers, the rice is a testament to the artistry of Zhuang cuisine – not to mention innovation.
Because if you think Zhuang cooks are simply throwing black and yellow rice into their pots you’re wrong. In fact, each portion is dyed by soaking the raw rice in natural juices made from plants that grow in Guangxi’s mountains. In addition to adding a moist, sticky texture to the rice, the juices also add the bright colors and a natural wild fragrance (though not a strong flavor). Maple leaves (枫叶 fēngyè) provides the black dye, a plant called zifanteng (紫蕃藤) the purple; huangfanhua (黄饭花) the yellow; honglancao (红蓝草) the red; and nature, of course, makes the white.
While in the course of researching five-colored rice, I stumbled across the weibo of a Zhuang post-90s girl who goes by 猪丫头的幸福 (her weibo is http://weibo.com/u/2650569872), and recently posted an exquisite picture of home-made five-colored rice, lamenting that she would miss the treat this holiday. The girl told me she grew up with eating her mother’s five-colored rice and listening to old people’s mysterious stories, adding that making the rice is not difficult as long as you grasp the tips of coloring! In the Zhuang community, women’s ability to make brilliant five-colored rice is one important way of assessing her capabilities.
While most of us don’t have the resources to make the real thing, Guangxi readers continue on to learn how to make an authentic five-colored rice.
1. Pestle maple leaves and stalks, being sure to grind them as thoroughly as possible (if the plant matter isn’t pestled enough, the rice will come out gray rather than black).
2. Soak the pulp in water at a ration of 1:1.5.
3. After 24 hours, the water will have turned a yellowish green. Filter the solid from the water.
4. Heat a pot of water to 70-80 degrees Celcius and turn off the heat. (The temperature cannot be higher than this, otherwise the rice won’t come out black.). Stir the raw rice into the mixture until it changes from blue to black.
5. Follow the same steps to make the other colors of rice.
6. Steam the five colors of rice in a steamer for one hour.
Our weibo friend also emphasized two tips handed down by her mother to ensure your colors are bright. One is that the pot used for boiling the water color cannot have any oil in it. The other is that the rice should not be soaked before coloring.
It’s a laborious process but one that yields a result worthy of your ancestors!
Rice isn’t the only food with a rich Chinese history, this grain pretty much built China.