What are qingtuan and why are people queuing 2 hours to get them?

Love it or hate it? This traditional Tomb Sweeping snack divides the crowds

Kong Tin Jun

At all good Chinese festivals, celebrations and food go hand in hand. With Qingming Festival (Tomb Sweeping Festival) right around the corner (Tuesday 4 April), people are flocking to get their mitts on qingtuan - green glutinous balls traditionally filled with red bean paste.


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Legend has it that the tradition of eating qingtuan began 2,000 years ago during the Qing Dynasty Taiping civil war. A farmer was smuggling food to an imprisoned general, and after discovering the green colouring of Chinese mugwort, he used it to make qingtuan, which he could camouflage in the grass near where the general was being kept. Smart. The farmer's offerings kept the general alive and, following his escape, he made it a rule that everyone in the army must learn how to make qingtuan. And since Chinese mugwort only grows during the beginning of spring, qingtuan is a speciality eaten during Qingming Festival.


The technique for making qingtuan is more or less the same today; its sticky skin is made of glutinous rice and dyed green by the mugwort (or barley grass). It's then traditionally filled with sweet green bean or red bean paste, though modern incarnations also include savoury fillings such as salted egg yolk and meat.


You might have spotted the green snack on the shelves of Family Mart or Lianhua, but for the real deal, you're going to have to queue.


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With a seemingly never-ending queue outside the shop, it’s easy to find this 70-year-old eatery.


'Internet famous' restaurant Wang Jia Sha sells this much sought-after green glob of a snack and in the run-up to Qingming Festival, things get pretty busy. Restaurant manager Mr Liu explains that over this weekend (the weekend closest to Qingming Festival), the queue may well extend to in excess of 1,000 people, with a waiting time of around an hour and a half. There are six flavours on offer here, including the most popular Mugwort leaf qingtuan with red bean; salted egg yolk and meat; and hawthorn.


In the queue is Madam Xu, in her 60s, who particularly likes the texture of Wang Jia Sha’s qingtuan. 'It’s chewier because the skin is thicker than the ones you find at supermarkets,' she says of the traditional handmade qingtuan.


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