If memory serves me correctly, fantuan was, I believe, a bit of a late comer to the Longhe Road breakfast scene. By the time that my mom and I had become regulars at the jianbing and shatang/guotie places, a middle-aged man popped up and set up his shop, all based on a wooden pull wagon with a giant wooden barrel inside, on the sidewalks just next to the woman selling the jianbing. Inside the wooden barrel, which is usually covered with a big, wet towel, was full of freshly steamed nuomi, glutinous rice. This is the main ingredient for fantuan.
Of the quick, grab-and-go breakfast choices on Longhe Road, fantuan was, perhaps, the most substantial of them all. Made from nuomi, a much stickier, sweeter, and heavier rice variety than the normal white rice eaten in a Chinese meal and usually reserved in my area for desserts (such as babaofan, eight treasure rice), or pounded into niangao (rice cakes popular during New Year), or made into jiuniang (sweet rice wine), fantuan almost seems like a simpler but more versatile version of zongzi, both of which being made from intact grains of glutinous rice and stuffed with all kinds of goodies. And, like zongzi, they stick to your bones, too – a fist-sized fantuan would keep me full all morning.
The man sold both sweet and savory types (I generally preferred the latter). The sweet ones are much simpler and are filled with granulated white sugar and black sesame seeds – a very common combination for sweets and desserts in my area, and probably costed around 1.5 yuan. The savory ones, however, are a completely different ball-game: for 2 yuan, you could have any combination of zhacai (pickled mustard stems), xiangangdou (pickled long beans), rousong (pork floss), and – the best part – either a stick of huotuichang (a bologna-like sausage that was a childhood weakness of mine) or a stick of youtiao (deep fried dough stick), or, for half a yuan more, both – which is, of course, my natural choice.
I also loved to watch the man make them: after you told him what you wanted inside the fantuan, he would put a couple scoopful of the glutinous rice on to a hot and slightly damp towel, spread it out into a thick rectangular layer, spoon the fillings in a straight line down the center of the rice, then fold the towel onto itself with the rice inside, and squeeze and twist the towel, as it drying it, to form something akin to an elongated American football with pointed ends about the size of a fist. Then, he’d drop the fantuan into a plastic bag, dip the tip in the sugar-and-sesame mixture if you asked for a sweet one, and hand it over.
The sweet version was always, in my humble opinion, good, but boring. I’ve always much preferred the symphony of flavors and textures of the savory version: chewy rice, salty and tangy pickles, crunchy youtiao. A delicious, quick, and cheap breakfast that kept you full for the whole morning – what else could I ask for?