Friday, May 17, 2013

Nostalgia in a Bamboo Leaf

My parents were workaholic Taiwanese immigrants whom I was lucky to see at 8:00 at night. Most times, we grabbed fast food from Arby's or Sizzler's or some fish shack my mother liked, but occasionally, we would make a foray from the depths of Queens to Chinatown. This was before the Taiwanese community formed in Flushing, so Chinatown was where we got our dose of culture. One of the places that we regularly stopped at in Chinatown was May May on Pell Street. It was the only place in New York City you could find a decent zongzi (粽子) or bah zhang (肉粽), as they're known in Taiwan.

Bah zhang from a Taiwanese article about the Dragon Boat Festival.

The food you eat as a child has a certain nostalgia. I think this is because of the way babies and small children feast on everything so completely with all their senses and their entire bodies. The taste of your first foods seep into a deep visceral layer. It combines with the feeling of security you have as a child, with love, with feeling satiated, content and whole. I always wonder what is up with American children who only will eat plain spaghetti with butter. I can't imagine a child in Asia refusing to eat something put in front of them, or wanting colorless food with no taste.

For those who don't know what a zongzi is, it's been compared to a tamale. But instead of corn husks, it's wrapped in bamboo leaves. And instead of corn meal, it's glutinous rice. In China, bah zhang is traditionally eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival, but in Taiwan, bah zhang is so iconic, it's almost synonymous with the place. It's like hot dogs and pizza to New York City. Or gumbo to New Orleans. There's even a sentimental song (烧肉粽 or "Hot Bah Zhang") that always cracks my mother up, about someone who graduated college but can't find a job so s/he's making a dismal living selling bah zhang on the street. It might be an Occupy Wall Street anthem if it weren't so syrupy. Click below for famed Taiwanese diva Teresa Teng singing the song, with subtitles in English. For the full effect of seeing this with my mom, I ought to include a high-pitched laugh track.

The bah zhang in Taiwan are studded with steamed peanuts, dried black mushrooms, and meat. Often, a roasted chestnut is included, which always seemed like an extra treat to me as a kid, like finding a gold coin in a cake. There's also a Cantonese version of bah zhang that has a dried powdery egg yolk in it. Cantonese people don't put such an emphasis on rice as Taiwanese people do and their version of bah zhang always seemed to me like pizza from some random town in the middle of America. Dry, dense, and mealy. But I know there are plenty of Cantonese people who prefer their version of bah zhang, which they call joong.

May May had about eight different kinds of Taiwanese-style bah zhang even though it was in the heart of Cantonese Chinatown. There were even three vegetarian kinds. You could smell the aroma of rice and bamboo halfway down the street. I used to buy a half dozen at a time to put in school lunches for my kid. It was perfect for the early morning slog of trying to rouse the child, get him dressed, cook breakfast, and prepare lunch - all I had to do was steam the bah zhang for 15 minutes and pop it into his lunch box. I didn't even need to wrap it in anything since it already was wrapped in bamboo.

So when May May closed in 2007 after 42 years of serving nostalgia in a bamboo leaf to hungry Nuyorasians, I was devastated. I looked for bah zhang everywhere but I either had to go all the way to Flushing or settle for those bleh Cantonese ones.

May May before it closed. 
Where May May used to be. 
Last week, after a panel at CUNY's Asian-American/Asian Research Institute, I happened to sit next to Antony Wong at dinner. Talk somehow turned to Chinatown and I lamented about May May closing. Antony told me that he had just learned that some people from May May went across the street to the old coffeeshop and they are now selling bah zhang there.

That old coffeeshop is a living authentic relic of good old Chinatown. I've passed by hundreds of times and noted its sign, which has the Chinese going from right to left, so it must date from the 1960s or before. The next morning, I finally went in, and sure enough, right at the door, I encountered a big pile of three different kinds of bah zhang for just $2.25, which is less than what May May used to charge. I bought one for lunch, and was happy to see that they're the Taiwanese-style ones. And they're really good; the only thing missing is the mushrooms. And the chestnut.

Finally, a place to find bah zhang in New York City! I've also just learned that this the place to go for roast pork buns. Mee Sum Cafe at 26 Pell. Pass it on.

Mee Sum Cafe on Pell Street.
Inside Mee Sum Cafe, old style NYC. 
The pile of bah zhang at Mee Sum Cafe. 


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  2. At the north corner of Chrystie & Grand the sweet tofu monger, who always had a long line, has been replaced with a bah zhang seller. The tofu seller must have a condo in Flushing by now, but selling bah zhong seems like more of a challenge with or without college degree.

  3. I remember visiting May May years ago with friends and being amazed by the amount of zongzi they sold.

    I stumbled on your blog a little while back to find out about what happened to the place. There was an interesting NY Times article about it

    It's a shame that it closed, but good to know it's been reborn as another business.

    I've been learning how to make zongzi the way my mom makes it (the conical ones) and it's tough to get it right!

    There's a lot of handwork and technique involved and it's pretty time consuming, but there's some old traditions that are worth preserving and passing along to the next generation.

    To be honest, I'm surprised that people haven't catapulted this as a food trend and try and adopt it as their own.

    Would it catch it on? Would a zongzi shop in a gentrified neighborhood work?