For the last few weeks, Ive been sampling zong zi as the Dragon Boat Festival comes to an end. Luckily, here in the Bay Area, these sticky rice dumpling treats are available for purchase all year-round. Heres a description of the ones Ive bought in San Francisco Chinatown and reheated at home, in order of preference.
5th. Yong Kee, aka Yung Kee (Jackson) On the plain side with a chunk of pork fat back, salted egg yolk and either beans or peanuts, and somewhat skimpy with the fillings. These seemed a bit overcooked, as the rice was too soft and compact, almost gummy in texture $1.50 each
4th. Louies Dim Sum (Stockton) A little bigger than the ones at Yong Kee, these had almost too much filling. Overflowing with peanuts (didnt like that the skins were still on), but only a quarter of an egg yolk and a small piece of pork. The one with green beans was almost 1/3 solid with beans and had two egg yolks. $1.50 each
3rd. Lady street vendor (Stockton/Pacific) I struck up a conversation with an older gentleman who was buying a few on the sidewalk from this vendor. He said he hadnt tried these yet and was only buying a couple to sample. He said theres usually another woman who works this corner on Saturdays and he buys those in quantity and freezes them. This turned out to be a nice one with firmly packed rice cooked all the way through yet keeping its individual grain, and stuffed with peanuts (soft non-bitter skins still on), salted egg yolk, roast pork, and fat back. Id buy more from her. $1.30 each.
2nd. Yuet Lee (Broadway/Stockton) The zong zi are suspended high overhead above the cash register here. These are ENORMOUS, so big that they can only be wrapped in one direction by a bamboo leaf, then bundled over that with a lotus leaf and tied with heavy cord. When I asked what was in them, the long litany of savory filling make me think this was Yuet Lees answer to the garbage burrito. As he took my money($4.60 for one), the owner said firmly that boiling for 15 minutes was the only way to reheat it completely, microwaving would not work. He was right, in fact, it was still cold in the center when I boiled it for nearly 20 minutes and I had to pop it into the steamer since it was unwrapped. All the goodies inside hed promised and maybe more: roast chicken drummette and part of the breast (on the bone), chunk of roast duck with the skin, Chinese sausage (lop cheung), barbecue pork (char siu), roast pork (siu yuk) with the jelly-like softened rind, fat back, salted egg yolk, peanuts, yellow beans, and Im sure Ive left something out. The rice was softly chewy and the pearly round grains were separate due to the amount of grease. The version here had that meld of flavors and meaty textures lacking from the others, but it left a big puddle of oil in the bottom of the dish. Im sure it weighs more than a pound, maybe even two, and is enough to feed two people amply. Ultra-rich and very delicious.
1st. Feng Huang Pastry, aka Feng Heung (Jackson) Not only were the zong zi here new to me, but this was my first purchase from this small dim sum take-out counter. They were displayed at the front of the window and I could see the steam rising from them in the morning when I walked by. Id wondered whether one supplier might be supplying the multitude of zong zi sold in various deli and bakery windows this time of year, and this looked like it might be house made. The owner explained that these were made according to a recipe handed down in his family for generations and that theyd be the best Id ever tasted. He also pointed out that his zong zi cost more because they use the authentic salted DUCK egg yolks, which are superior, more expensive and richer in flavor than chicken eggs. Ive tried both the peanut and green bean version. The one with beans is a little larger in size, and both are priced at $1.60 each. In contrast to the amalgamated flavors of Yuet Lees, each component of this zong zi stays separate in texture and flavor. The rice is just barely cooked enough to have chewy firmness and individual grain. It stays very white and is saturated with the perfume of the ti leaf wrappers. A 3 section of lean lop cheung has a firm almost hard texture and keeps its own integrity. A piece of lean roasted pork loin, like char siu, but not as sweet nor dyed red, is nicely browned/caramelized allround and al dente. The salted duck egg yolk is red-orange and adds richness. A chunk of fat back melts into the whole to add the needed bit of fat, but otherwise this is as greaseless and pristine an expression of zong zi as Ive ever tasted. While Yuet Lees long-cooked textures and flavors are more like what I grew up with, the clean, pure flavors of this one are growing on me and makes it my favorite now. Ive been back two times to buy more. One of the trips, a Chinese matron was nibbling on one bent over the sales counter. She told me that shed been taste-testing them all over Chinatown and finally found the one she was going to buy.