Monday, December 17, 2012

Crunchy breakfast rice rolls -- a Taipei memory

The sweet version of these rice rolls was without a doubt the first thing I ever bought to eat in Taipei, and the reason for this was that a nice middle-aged Taiwanese lady would plant herself in front of my language school every single weekday morning and sell them from her simple cart.

She was that lovely sort of woman who seemed to run Taipei’s underground economy: short, strong, with a smiling and ruddy face, her arms and neck were covered with gaily printed cotton to protect her from the sun, and she wore a wide conical hat made out of bamboo sheaths. Industrious and incredibly dependable, she’d make her usual rounds as she pushed her iron and wood cart through our neighborhood, calling out “Fantuan!” (rice rolls) as she walked, and providing a delicious hot breakfast for what must have been about a quarter.

Like Laura Palmer: wrapped in plastic
One thing that has struck me as strange, now that I think of it: although this is a morning staple that most likely originated in Nanjing (Zhejiang province), I never saw anyone but Taiwanese ladies selling them. And this is really unusual, because it was usually expats from the Mainland who sold their hometown specialties.

Anyway, that nice lady would ask me whether I wanted sweet or savory that day and then spread the rice out on a wrung-out towel, as the moisture would keep the rice from sticking to the cloth. The finished roll would be wrapped up in a piece of paper and tossed into a plastic bag so that I could slowly savor it between classes.

Today, street hawkers are a rare sight in Taipei; things like these rice rolls are found almost exclusively now in the breakfast shops that specialize in hot soybean milk and the fried crullers known as youtiao. Sometimes called “fried devils” in both English and Chinese (youzha gui 油炸鬼), this name most likely originated in Hong Kong and was a misinterpretation of yet another one of their names, “fried crullers” (youzha guozi 油炸果子).
Chinese crullers

Both the sweet and savory versions are delicious and unusual and highly addictive. They are perfect with a bowl of hot soybean milk, a combination that brings back immediate memories of my first hot, humid, wonderful mornings in Taipei.

Crunchy breakfast rice rolls 
Zīfàntuán 栥飯團 
1 rice roll (can be multiplied infinitely)

½ fried Chinese cruller (youtiao), see Tips
1 cup hot, cooked sweet rice (aka glutinous rice)
2 tablespoons chopped Toasted Peanuts
2 tablespoons Toasted Sesame Seeds
2 tablespoons sugar, or to taste

Pickled greens & radish
½ fried Chinese cruller (youtiao), see Tips
A drizzle of peanut or vegetable oil
1 to 2 tablespoons salted dried radish (caipu)
1 to 2 tablespoons sour pickled mustard greens (suancai)
1 cup hot, cooked sweet rice
¼ cup (or more) fried pork fluff (rousong), see Tips
¼ of a finely chopped Pickled Red Chili, optional

1. Split the cruller down the middle into two long strips, cut each strip into 2 equal pieces (giving you 4 pieces per cruller), and then heat as many of them as you want them in a 300°F oven until very crispy. (You can bake them until they are very hard, if you prefer, at 275°F for a longer time.) If you are making the savory rice rolls, heat half of the oil in a wok over medium-high until it smokes and fry the radish for a few seconds to even out the flavors; scrape this out onto a small plate. Repeat this step with the other half of the oil and fry the pickled mustard greens. 
Pork fluff

2. If the rice is super-hot, lay a clean washcloth on your counter, cover it with a large, clean resealable plastic bag, and then top this with a foot-wide piece of cling wrap. (The washcloth will protect your hands, the plastic bag will give you a nice slippery surface, and the cling wrap will keep the sticky rice manageable.) If the rice is cool enough to handle, you can omit the washcloth.

3. Scoop a cup of the hot rice onto the middle of the cling wrap and use a rubber spatula to spread it out into a more or less 8-inch square. Sprinkle either the sweet or the savory condiments along the middle section and lay a piece of the toasted cruller on top. Use all three layers of the wrapping to roll up the rice and condiments around the cruller, patting the ends in to seal in everything. Lightly squeeze the rice roll in your hands to compact everything around the cruller and keep it from falling apart. Rearrange the cling wrap, if necessary, around the rice roll and serve it wrapped up. The diner then peels back the cling wrap as bites are taken.
Layer on the fillings


Use fresh, hot rice for this; reheated rice doesn’t have the same amount of stickiness or flavor. 

Be sure and used sweet (glutinous) rice, as other varieties won’t be able to hold the grains together in a nice layer unless you mash them into a pulp.

Fried crullers are now a common item in the freezer section of Chinese grocers; these packages usually contain 3 or 4, so just remove as many as you’d like and reclose the package in a freezer bag. If left in the fridge, the crullers will mold within a week, so freeze them for longer storage.

A toaster oven is perfect for heating up the crullers.

Nuts & sugar
Fry the salted radish and pickled mustard greens before you use them, as they otherwise will have an unpleasant packaged flavor. 

If you don’t care for salty things, they can be rinsed in a sieve and patted dry before being fried.

Pork fluff is meat that has been shredded, deep-fried, and then cooked with seasonings like soy sauce and sugar until it is fine and, well, fluffy. Taiwan has some good brands, with the best being (IMHO)  Hsin Tung Yang. Keep the pork fluff in a tightly closed jar, use it up within a month or so, and dry it out in the oven on low if it looses its oomph.