Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Tuen Ng Festival (duan wu jie) 端午节

It's Cinco de Mayo, but with no alcohol and lots of glutinous rice. It is the fifth day of the fifth month on the Lunar calendar, and you know what that means: eating zhong and watching dragon boat races. But because I am far away from my family, I totally forgot about the holiday until my friend in Tanzania was telling me about how he would like a zhong right now. You can eat zhongs year round, but it is something quite particular to crave, so I figured it must have been tuen ng jit.  

A wrapped zhong, not in any particularly traditional shape
So, now that I've used the word multiple times, what is a zhong? Known as zong zi in Mandarin, zhongs are steamed glutinous rice balls wrapped in bamboo leaf. My family is Cantonese, so I am used to seeing them in tetrahedrals (yay organic chemistry), but apparently northerners wrap their's in long cone shapes. So why is this food purposely eaten on this holiday? Well, here's the story that I remember my mom telling me when I was a kid. 

Back in the Chu Dynasty during the Warring States Period, China was in turmoil. Qu Yuan was a high ranking official who served his people justly, but because the emperor ignored his advice, this detrimentally affected the citizens of the kingdom. Out of despair, Qu Yuan committed suicide by drowning himself in the river on the fifth day of the fifth month. But because he was so popular among the local people, they wanted to retrieve his body and provide him with a proper burial. Therefore the men paddled out into the water, banging on drums and making noise to scare away the fish. The women wrapped rice in bamboo leaves and dumped them into the river, so that the fish would feed on the rice instead of Qu Yuan's body. So there you have the origins of zhong, dragon boating, and the festival. 

And that is the story that I grew up listening to every fifth of the lunar fifth while eating a kan shui zhong (alkaline rice dumpling) or a ham yuk zhong (salted pork rice). There are many types out there, and everyone makes them differently. Generally speaking, kan shui zhong are glutinous rice prepared with alkaline water filled with red bean paste. The alkaline treatment causes the rice to turn a translucent brown color (Why? Maybe I'll learn during the acid/bases orgo lecture). Because it does not have much taste, I grew up learning to lightly dip it in raw sugar with each bite. I'm not a huge fan of red bean, but I do enjoy the plain portions of kan shui zhong. Ham yuk zhong are its savory counterparts, which my friend Kevin succinctly summarizes: "meat is the best. With a drizz of soy sauce. The meat has to be fatty so the oil goes into the rice.That's my evaluation of the whole situation." My Chiu Chow grandmother wraps her own ham yuk zhongs, which she generously stuffs with fatty pork, salty egg yolks, and peanuts. I completely agree with Kevin, because I am just craving the taste of soy sauce as I typed that. Though, my dad still grabs for the sugar. There are just some childhood habits you can't break. 

So whatever story you grew up hearing, or if this is your first time ever hearing of such a strange holiday, just make sure you get to eat some zhong tonight! 

Kan shui zhong, made with alkaline water
Red bean paste filling

Monday, June 3, 2013

Mile End, Montreal: Fairmount Bagel, Wilensky's, Drawn and Quarterly, & Dieu du Ciel!

Je suis obsédée par Montreal. Obsessed. Sure, I've never been there in the dead of winter, but even a cold rainy weekend could not stop me from falling for the city. Just a mere 8+ hour bus ride away from Boston, this Canadian city so proudly boasts its French descent that you will feel as if you traveled to a different continent.

Mile End is a neighborhood in Montreal known for its art and culture, which is saying a lot because Montreal is known as Canada's cultural capital. Not only does it house numerous cafes, art galleries, designer workshops, and boutiques, but it also has some of the most famous eateries in Montreal. Let's just say that I could not have hoped for a more perfect morning than the one I am about to share with you.

1. Fairmount Bagel: grab a sesame bagel with cream cheese to go!
2. Wilensky's Light Lunch: must order the special with a chocolate egg cream
3. Drawn and Quarterly: spend some time looking through their collection of graphic novels
4. Dieu du Ciel: try a few of their specialty brewed beers

It all starts at Fairmount Bagel, which has been around since 1919 and is on every Montreal tourist's to-do list, including Anthony Bourdain's. I had mixed feelings about trying the best bagel in Canada. I am from New York City, and all real New Yorkers live off of bagels and sparkling water. Therefore I am always down for a good bagel, but I must admit that I am quite particular about my bagel texture and generally refuse to eat bagels outside the New York City vicinity, save a few exceptions (Mag Muff). But because there are across the board raving reviews for Fairmount, I had to try and was genuinely concerned that they would out-do my NYC bagels and that I would be forever tainted by the knowledge that I would have to travel all the way to Montreal to attain the best bagels. Well, long story short, Fairmount was by no means life changing. I will not deny that they are delicious bagels, but my everything bagel with salmon and cream cheese was quite... unsurprising. I did not order it toasted because I wanted to try the original work, but it was a bit tough and not as chewy as I hoped. Maybe I should have went with the sesame, for loads of people were buying those by the dozen. All in all, it was good, but good thing I won't have to go out of my way to Montreal to get bagels in the future.

After my bagel breakfast I was still unsatisfied, so Michael and I went down the block to the famous Wilensky's Light Lunch. It maintains its old fashioned furnishings as if nothing has changed since 1952. Wilensky's is famous for its "special," which is a beef bologna sandwich with mustard on a kaiser roll. Honestly, it was probably the best thing I ate all trip. It was just so simple and induced some serious nostalgia. Maybe because I haven't had a slice of bologna since I was in elementary school or maybe because I was also drinking a hand mixed chocolate egg cream, which I also haven't had since elementary school. Whatever it is, everyone has to go to Wilensky's and order the special with a side of pickles and a chocolate egg cream. A little bit more on what their chocolate egg cream actually is: there's no egg. It's just their housemade chocolate syrup, sparkling water, and 2% milk. All the best things mixed in a glass. I also tried their vanilla milkshake, which they use the same syrup for their cream soda, but there's no ice cream at all. Just 2% milk and the syrup treated with a mixer. I'm telling you, simple really does it for me.

After Wilensky's, we went to Drawn and Quarterly's bookstore. They're a Montreal based publishing company that specializes in comics. However, their bookstore contains a lot more than just graphic novels. They have quite a well curated collection of classics, fiction, art books, and pop journals. Michael and I lost ourselves in there for close to two hours, and I must admit that our only purchase in Montreal (besides the sturdiest $3 umbrella from a dollar store) was at Drawn and Quarterly. I picked up a short story collection by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya and Drawing Food, a journal to guide me into yet another medium to express my love for food. Michael picked up The Complete Optic Nerve Mini-Comics, other graphic novels, and a real keeper, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. This store is a must-go for book lovers! I promise that you will not be able to leave empty handed.

And finally to end the afternoon, we stopped at Dieu du Ciel!, an artisanal brewpub. They have about a dozen site-brewed beers on tap, but I unfortunately do not remember what I ordered (as refreshing as it was). However, I do distinctly recall how delicious our pressed ham and cheese sandwich was! I don't know why everything I ate in Montreal seemed extra delicious, but this sandwich was good. Michael doesn't even like grilled cheeses. Also, it came with a glass of pickles, which is always good news. If you like beers, this bar will definitely have something to suit your palette. (Also, even though it was 2pm on a Friday afternoon, there was a solid crowd going.)

So when you visit Montreal (because everyone should), definitely reserve half a day or at least a morning to spend at my new favorite neighborhood, Mile End!

The house of the original Fairmount Bagel!
Behind the scenes of a bagel plant
Everything bagel with salmon and cream cheese for about CAD$6
Wilensky's iconic store front
My chocolate egg cream in the making!
Two specials with pickles and a chocolate egg cream
Vanilla milkshake time!

Inside Drawn and Quarterly

Our afternoon snack at Dieu du Ciel!