What Makes Shanghai-Style Rice Dumplings Stand Out?

Chinese dumplings not only come in all shapes and sizes but they are also prepared in many different ways, with MasterClass listing at least eight different kinds. From the ever-popular ground pork-filled jiao zi, to the shrimp-stuffed shu-mai and har-gow seen served up at dim sum restaurants all over the world. Then there is the xiao long bao, filled with ground pork and a gelatinous soup cube that disintegrates when the dumpling is steamed to deliver a mouthful of hot soup and pork with one bite.

But there is one other kind of dumpling that dominates the festive Chinese table during the Dragon Boat Festival, which takes place on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Lunar Calendar. These dumplings are not as delicate, in fact, they are just the opposite. These dumplings are quite hearty — made with rice, filled either with generously-sized chunks of savory pork or sweet red bean and wrapped in Huangshan bamboo leaves. And while they are said to originate from the northern Chinese coastal province of Zhejiang and are called "Huzhou-style dumplings" they are also known as "Shanghai-style rice dumplings," because Zhejiang sits so close to the famous city, per Michelin Guide.

The characteristics of Shanghai-style rice dumplings

Michelin Guide says the popular savory version of the Shanghai-style zongzi makes use of both types of soy sauce — light and dark, leaving the rice slick and caramel-colored. These dumplings generally come in the shape of elongated pillows, and they are commonly filled with salted pork and ham. Although China Highlights says they can also be stuffed with marinated pork belly, shiitake mushrooms, as well as a salted duck egg.

But Shanghai rice dumplings aren't just savory — there are sweet ones to be had too, and these would be white and stuffed with red bean or mung bean paste. And while you might think all zongzi may look alike, you can actually spot the Shanghai-style zongzi in a crowd of rice dumplings because they are shaped differently. Most zongzi come shaped like pyramids, or tetrahedrons while Shanghai-style rice dumplings are more rectangular, per Michelin Guide.

Different Chinese regions make different types of zongzi

If legends and oral history are to be believed, rice dumplings or zongzi have been around for thousands of years, and given China's size and geography, it should come as no surprise that other styles have evolved. And because they are consumed as part of an important festival, they can also be found in most parts of China, and any country where there is an overseas Chinese presence.  

They all look fairly similar, but the shape of a zongzi, the way a batch of sticky rice dumplings is seasoned, and the ingredients they might be filled with is dictated by the region it comes from, per Honest Food Talks. As Hong Kong chef Li Chi Wai tells Michelin Guide, "Rice dumplings from each region have their own unique characteristics. Some are sweet and cylindrical, and some are savory and pyramid-shaped." 

Cantonese zongzi are smaller, pyramid-shaped, and filled with fresh meat, smoked Chinese sausages, and red bean paste, while northern Chinese zongzi can be stuffed with red bean paste, dates, and jujubes before it is wrapped in bamboo leaves, according to Honest Food Talks. Taiwan Scene also says "northern style" zongzi can also be filled with dried seafood, salted egg yolks, and seasoned with salt and pepper before it is cooked.