Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Taipei, days 2-3.

I woke up very late, nearly lunchtime, to find my mom rushing out the door and a leftover zhong zhi waiting for me. Zhong zhi are triangular bundles of glutinous sticky rice filled with all sorts of ingredients, wrapped in giant bamboo leaves and then steamed. They are the perfect quick meal, because you can buy them frozen and zap them in the microwave. In Taiwan, they can be bought from street vendors, piping hot and ready to eat. There are many variations - in Hong Kong they are filled with salted egg yolks; Shanghainese-style ones are filled with red-braised pork belly, and the rice has been seasoned with soy sauce; Taiwanese-style ones have peanuts. There are sweet ones filled with red bean paste and lotus seeds, but my favorite ones are filled with pork belly. This one has pork belly and peanuts; speckles of black rice are mixed in amongst the usual sticky rice, giving it a more interesting texture and flavor than the plain kind. Because glutinous rice is so filling, one zhong zhi is enough for a simple meal. It is one of those childhood dishes, comforting as a warm blanket on a cold morning.

The next morning brings another childhood memory with it, a breakfast of fried crullers sandwiched between two layers of sesame-encrusted biscuit, with a styrofoam container of hot fresh soy milk on the side. When I was a child I would drink my hot soy milk sweetened; now I drink it savory. It is spiked with pickled radishes and finely sliced scallions, and slightly curdled, salty and almost sharp from the pickles. The crullers are long sticks of fried dough, crisp and golden outside, airy inside. You can eat them as is, or wrap them in sesame biscuits, flaky rectangles of dough sprinkled liberally with white sesame seeds (they make wonderful sandwiches when stuffed with slices of cold beef). They are a standard breakfast, these biscuit-wrapped fried crullers and hot soy milk, as common as pancakes and bacon on a weekend morning, found anywhere from roadside stands with their low tables and stools to hotel restaurants.

For dinner, we have jiao zhi, boiled dumplings filled with pork and cabbage. (At least I think it is pork and vegetables, given that I can't read the package). They are the ultimate fast dinner, easy to keep on hand in the freezer, easy to boil up in a moment, served with a dipping sauce of soy sauce and a slosh of sesame oil. (You could add minced garlic, hot sauce, dark Chinkiang vinegar, or finely sliced scallions, but we have none of these on hand). I have made these by the dozens in our kitchen (instructed by an old friend of my parents who is from Beijing); I have eaten them on street corners, purchased for $3NT each, ten dumplings making a fine dinner for what was then about $1. Now they cost $5NT each, only the slightest increase over a decade. A simple dinner, the night before we leave for Laos; the fridge is cleared of leftovers, our suitcases are packed. And it's time for our vacation to begin.

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