Over the past one and a half years, the pandemic has hit the Philippine catering industry hard and Lee's bakery, a time-honoured brand established in 1939 in Quezon City in Metro Manila, is no exception.
"Business is not good following a series of lockdown measures against the pandemic. One day, for no reason, I missed the taste of 'Ma Zhang', namely Zongzi or glutinous rice dumpling with seasoned meat stuffing in Minnan dialect, made by my mother in my childhood," Lee, 54, whose ancestors came from Jinjiang, a city in southeast China's Fujian province, told Xinhua.
Zongzi, usually pyramid-shaped traditional Chinese delicacy wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves, is a kind of special food derived from the Dragon Boat Festival, which falls on the fifth day of the fifth month in the Chinese lunar calendar. And, this year it will be celebrated on June 14.
For Lee, recalling and reproducing Mama's recipe for Zongzi is like completing a gastronomic jigsaw puzzle. Having spent months of constant testing, he finally wrapped up delicacies and specialties such as glutinous rice, seasoned streaky pork or chicken stuffing, mushrooms, dried shrimp and salted egg yolks into green leaves, making them sell like "wrapped paella" during the pandemic.
"It has become a unique best seller in my bakery, increasing our sales dramatically," Lee said. "Some politicians, movie stars and food writers in the Philippines would come and buy Zongzi, posting the pictures on social media, which really helped our entire bakery business."
Mark Nilo Odiaman, a regular customer of Lee's bakery, has become a big fan of Zongzi ever since it hit the shelf, describing the snack with a distinct flavor of the Chinese culture as "economical and easy-to-carry."
"It costs 140 pesos (roughly US$3) per piece, and there is so much stuffing inside that it could be an equivalent to a lunch or dinner for me."
Intriguingly, Lee followed the principle of "buy one and get one story free" for Zongzi selling. A slice of paper is wrapped around each Zongzi, with a brief introduction of Qu Yuan, a famous Chinese ancient statesman and poet.
"I know the Dragon Boat Festival has been observed to commemorate Qu Yuan, who drowned himself for finding no way to make his small hinterland kingdom better. I shared this story with my customers in this way and they love it," Lee said.
From boom to gloom, Renato Balida's Suman business, the Philippine version of Zongzi, experienced the same trajectory as Lee's during the pandemic.
Suman, cylinder-shaped sticky rice dumpling with coconut milk inside wrapped in banana leaves, is a tasty snack for Philippine traditional weddings, parties and festivals.
Balida, 58, inherited the craftsmanship of making Suman from his mother, and has been producing it with his wife, Jessica, for 35 years in coastal Mabini city, Batangas province, south of Manila.
"Our Suman, 10 pesos (0.2 U.S. dollars) per piece, was sold well in the market before the pandemic. Philippine overseas workers who return from abroad would also bring our Suman to Italy, the United States, Canada, Saudi Arabia and Singapore," Balida said.
However, the pandemic took a toll on Balida's Suman business, following a plunge in the number of inbound foreign tourists and overseas workers due to the tightened border control measures.
Facing the difficulties, Balida's eldest daughter Regine, in her 20s, who has graduated from Westmead International School in Batangas City thanks to the Suman business, spared no effort to help her family to expand the domestic market with a new flavored Suman.
"We still sell hundreds of Suman every day. We are also exploring ways to sell it online," Regine said. "There are bound to be ups and downs in business. I want to make it better." - Xinhua