All Wrapped Up

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I untie the string and rush to pull the wrapper apart to discover the details of today’s gift. It’s not what most would consider a typical present but zhong, a mound of sticky rice that’s one of my favorite foods from childhood. Zhong (pronounced juhng) is the traditional Chinese snack with either meat or dessert encased in rice, wrapped in bamboo leaves and tied with string. The meat version generally consists of pork and a duck egg with peanuts scattered throughout; dessert fillings include red beans or honey. If you’ve ever had sticky rice during dim sum, it’s the same thing but with more variety than you thought possible. Variations of the zhong exist in other Asian cultures with different fillings and leaves for packaging. I scour menus of Asian restaurants looking for something new and recently found an excellent coconut rice and red bean zhong wrapped in banana leaves at a Vietnamese restaurant.

I admire zhongs for reasons I admire any fine piece of pastry—for the skill, craft, beauty and energy involved in its creation. Although I open the zhong already knowing what’s inside, the positioning of each ingredient is a surprise, and my way of assessing the cook’s personality. Sometimes I need to eat endless mouthfuls of rice before I get to the scant filling, angry that I’m already too full for the “main event.” Other times, I hit meat or a dessert filling within the first bite and wonder if the cook knows anything about proper pacing and seduction.
The legend of this humble food staple goes back to the 5th century B.C. A king didn’t heed warnings from his minister about encroaching enemies and, when their state fell to defeat, the minister Qu Yuan was so sad and angered, he committed suicide by jumping into water. People were moved by his patriotism and threw zhongs into the sea to placate the fish so they wouldn’t eat his body. The water-repellent bamboo leaves kept the food in convenient edible packages. Chinese people today celebrate Qu Yuan every spring by eating zhong.

Making zhongs requires skill and patience. If not folded and wrapped correctly, they can easily explode while being boiled, and flavors will dissipate if not tightly packed. Fortunately, zhong is available year-round in Chinatown.

Trying to recapture my Christmas present-ripping euphoria, I went on a hunt. The first place I visited was May May on 85 Pell St., which had been a zhong emporium. But once I arrived, I discovered they closed up shop. So, I went around the corner to Sunur (18B Doyer St.), the homey mom-and-pop Indonesian and Malaysian restaurant. They have their own version of the zhong—smaller in size, but more concentrated in filling rather than rice. They have four varieties, though all of the salty kind ($2.35 each).

For the zhong neophyte, I recommend restaurants like Shanghai Café (100 Mott St.), which serves a sweet version called “Red Bean Paste Sticky Rice in Bamboo Leaf” for $2.50, or Noodle Village (13 Mott St.), which serves zhong under the title “Homemade Giatinous [sic] Rice Dumplings.” They come steamed or pan-fried for $2.50 and $2.95, respectively.

For the more adventurous, a woman sells amazing homemade zhong from her cart every morning for $1 in front of Chinatown Optical (40 Mott St.). People wait in long lines until her supply disappears, and she packs up and goes home.

If you get to Chinatown Optical and discover she’s not there, then go next door to the soybean shop called Fong Inn Too Inc. (46 Mott St.). They make a wonderful dessert tofu, soy milk, turnip cake and black gelatin dessert as well as zhong of both the meat and plain variety ($1.25).

Friends who work at the Asia Bank enjoy tempting me with stories of the tasty jumbo-sized zhong ($3 each) packed with generous fillings at New South Wind Restaurant (21 Division St.).

The zhong’s close cousin is called nor mai gai and is about three times as large (and can serve up to four people), but it is wrapped in larger lotus leaves and contains chicken, pork, a chicken egg, mushrooms and bamboo shoots. When you’re ready to have this mother load go visit the usual dim sum parlors such as Hop Shing, now known as Chatham Restaurant (9 Chatham Sq.), Golden Unicorn (18 East Broadway) or Dim Sum Go Go (5 E. Broadway.)

Have a zhong for whatever reason suits your mood. Do it to open a present, judge a cook, identify with a historical dissident. Or do it to stage a protest. When we’re nearly drowned from the rising waters of global warming, I’ll throw in some zhong to lament an environmental folly.

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