Wenzhou sticky rice, a staple morning meal from the southern city known for its entrepreneurship, is the glue that holds a global diaspora together
Zhu Tong never forgets the mist that gushes out when the steamer opens. As the breakfast joint owner scoops out glistening grains into a bowl, he tops it with sprinkles of fried dough and a generous ladle of broth made with mushroom and minced pork. Zhu would use a stainless steel spoon to thoroughly scrape down every inch of his bowl.
This is how Wenzhou sticky rice (温州糯米饭), a breakfast staple of Zhu’s hometown of Wenzhou in southern Zhejiang province, was consumed in the family-run shops by the entrance of his village. But for the first 26 years of Zhu’s life, he experienced such delightful memories barely once or twice a year, when his parents took him back home for a visit.
Born in Wenzhou’s Yueqing town in 1988, Zhu was raised in Qinhuangdao, Hebei province, some 1,600 kilometers north. Zhu’s father is a veteran Wenzhou businessman who, starting in the 1980s, traveled widely and distributed electric appliances made by the city’s burgeoning manufacturing industry all across northern China. The work was hectic and distances long, so the family rarely returned to their hometown, which made the taste of sticky rice especially precious to Zhu since childhood. “Each year, I went back to relive the same flavors from the year before,“ Zhu recalls.
Following the successful economic reform experiments in Guangdong and Fujian, in 1984, China’s leaders selected Wenzhou among 14 coastal cities to “open up” to foreign investment. This launched the coastal city, already with a rich history of commerce and handicrafts, into a period of rapid economic development. Small family-run factories mushroomed around the area to churn out shoes, clothes, lighters, and other “small commodities,” which were then distributed by local businesspeople, who’ve left their footprints all around China and even the world as they search for greater opportunities. For members of the Wenzhou diaspora, like Zhu, a bowl of steaming sticky rice connects them to their memories of home and bonds them to each other.
To make sticky rice, Wenzhou cooks always soak glutinous rice for about five hours, or until the grains become transparent and break at the poke of a finger. The rice is then placed in a gauze-wrapped wooden steamer and steam-cooked for 20 minutes. In the local dialect, this procedure is known as chui (炊).
Although sticky rice is enjoyed all over China, the dough bits and broth bring out the distinctive soul of Wenzhou’s rendition. Each grain of rice absorbs the savory taste from the thick dark broth, and the aroma of pork and shiitake mushrooms slowly rises along with the mist of the heated rice. When the fresh-out-of-bed breakfasters take a bite, the crunch of the crispy dough fritter, the salty aroma of the broth, and the faint sweetness of the rice immediately gets them ready for a new day.
At a typical breakfast establishment in Wenzhou, a bowl usually costs six to 10 yuan, and most patrons enjoy it with a bowl of soy milk on the side. Retired elders, white-collar workers wearing suits, college students with their backpacks, and diners of all ages gather around the same table to eat.
Wenzhou sticky rice, however, is not well-known to people outside the city. In China, the stereotype of Wenzhou is a city full of business cunning and people always on the go (plus a devilishly difficult dialect). Starting in the early 2000s, people in many cities across the country have even complained about “Wenzhou property speculation groups”—businesspeople from the city who allegedly arrived in droves to buy properties and flipped them for profit, causing housing prices to rise for locals. But for the descendants of Wenzhou, wherever and in whatever circumstances they find themselves, sticky rice still glues them together.
At a breakfast joint near a middle school in Wenzhou, 48-year-old Xiao Zhi does brisk business every morning, and says she has been selling sticky rice for 26 years. She says there’s no special reason why the city’s people are fond of this food—rather, eating it is like second nature to her. “I have eaten sticky rice for as long as I remember,” she tells TWOC.
But for Zhu, who did not grow up in Wenzhou, a bowl of sticky rice became the emblem of his adolescent pining for his hometown until the end of 2014. That year, at age 26, he opened a restaurant called “Sticky House,” specializing in Wenzhou sticky rice in Hong Kong, where he had called home since 2007.
Following the completion of his bachelor’s degree in public policy and management at Hong Kong City University, Zhu stayed to work for a state-owned finance company. But both the “nostalgia for the flavors of home” and the “‘never settle’ attitude ingrained in the bones of Wenzhou people,” he says, led him to quit his respectable, stable job and devote himself to Sticky House.
Zhu’s parents didn’t understand his career choices. “The older generation thinks the food industry is tough work,” he explains. “But they didn’t object either.”
Zhu swiftly found four business partners through the Wenzhou Youth Association in Hong Kong. The team even spent a month in Wenzhou to study how to chui sticky rice with an old local cook. “For the broth, the cook only told us the general recipe, and we had to experiment the rest precisely by ourselves,” Zhu says. After they arrived at the perfect recipe, “we weighed all ingredients on a scale.”
Since opening, many seniors who had migrated from Wenzhou to Hong Kong have frequented Sticky House for a taste of home, even though some of them have forgotten how to speak the Wenzhou dialect. Curious Hong Kong locals have also come for a try.
Outside China, Wenzhou people also ventured out across the world, their footprints covering 131 countries and regions in five continents, according to official statistics from the city in 2016. In Italy alone, according to Wenzhou News, there were about 300,000 people of Wenzhou descent in 2011. Many of them arrived young without knowing how to speak any foreign language. They started out painting houses, washing dishes, or making clothes, but finally returned home having made their fortune.
In 2012, state broadcaster CCTV released a TV series called Family on the Go, which tells the story of a family that left Wenzhou in the early 1980s. Zhou Ayu, the protagonist, was sent to Prato, Italy, at the age of 13 by her parents, who sold their ancestral house in order to pay her costs. She works and studies hard to start her own clothing brand, while the family back in China also struggled to start their own business.
As children of Wenzhou set down new roots in lands far away from home, they have brought sticky rice with them. Some set up Chinese supermarkets or online shops offering vacuum-sealed packages of the dish ready to be steamed to restore its original flavor.
In Milan, where the Italy Milan Wenzhou Chamber of Commerce (the first such organization in Italy, which facilitates business and social connections for the local Wenzhou diaspora) was founded in 1999, there are now several breakfast joints in the city’s Chinatown serving Wenzhou sticky rice among the steamed buns and other more common Chinese breakfast offerings. Many Wenzhou natives who now call Milan home shrewdly compare the ingredients and prices of each store before choosing an establishment to patronize.
Zhu’s Sticky House only stuck around for about half a year, and in 2019, he moved back to Hebei to join his father’s venture. But Zhu still idolizes the flavors that haunted his childhood and youth. Once during a family trip to Venice, he stumbled upon a restaurant selling Wenzhou sticky rice. After a quick bite, however, he left without finishing the food. “Maybe it was the ingredients in Europe...[It] was just not authentic enough,” he laments.
Photography by Wang Jiawei (王佳炜)