Snapshots from Asia: Seeking Perfection in Rice Flour Rolls and Oil-Fried Devils
Crisp, golden Chinese crullers enrobed in silken, barely-there rice flour rolls, then lightly drizzled with your choice of sauces—a savory-sweet, fermented flour paste (a lot more approachable than it sounds), nutty, roasted sesame, seasoned soy, and a vinegary chile. Zhar leung is a dish so simple that hardly anyone gets it right.
First, the steamed rice flour rolls have to be so thin as to be translucent, yet be strong enough not to tear when picked up with chopsticks. Good rice flour rolls will boast a glossy sheen and a pleasingly elastic “bite,” which will then yield to a dreamy, melt-away texture. The only way to achieve this is for the cook to make the rolls on-the-spot –because anything this delicate will turn unappetizingly soggy if left waiting on a warmer.
Finally, in this inspired marriage of what is essentially fried flour wrapped in steamed flour, the duo have to be assembled and rushed to you à la minute. Because every second that the zhar leung is not in your mouth, the heat and humidity of the rice flour rolls are sapping away at the crullers’ divine crispness.
Suffice to say, there have been precious few instances in my life when I have encountered zhar leung in all its perfection. I don’t know about you, but there is nothing more grievous to me than a dish that’s not performing to its full potential (I suppose my Math tutor felt the same way about me).
The solution to that (besides your other best bet of finding a local dim sum joint with super quick customer turnover and thus nothing held on warmers), is to make it yourself. And thanks to like-minded perfectionists, there are recipes here and here. But it is tedious, and I’ve been toying with the idea of substituting the crullers with strips of puff pastry. I suspect this willful substitution would cause the collective Chinese peoples to flip in their graves though. You see, the crullers are also known as yau zhar kwai or “oil fried devils.” Legend has it that during the Song Dynasty, a traitorous couple framed a patriotic and much-loved general, bringing about his death. Angered, the people placed a pair of dough sticks together – symbolizing husband and wife – and deep fried them in hot oil, mirroring the fate they believed the couple would meet in hell. Since then, every time Chinese crullers are served, the traitorous couple are said to be frying in hot oil—for all eternity.
Of course, there are plenty more ways that Chinese crullers and rice flour rolls are eaten. The crullers serve as croutons when dished atop savory rice congee, and are delicious when dipped in hot soy milk or a garlicky pork bone broth. I’ve even had them generously drizzled with Nutella (when I found myself without access to decent pain au chocolat) and found them surprisingly good.
Most dim sum restaurants offer rice rolls filled with shrimp or Chinese barbequed pork. But for a quick, inexpensive meal, sturdier versions of the rice flour rolls can be found in the chiller section of Asian groceries. The simplest way to eat them is drizzled with light soy sauce, sesame oil, and a sprinkle of freshly roasted sesame seeds and deep fried shallots. Sriracha or even spicy Pinoy bagoong is an excellent accompaniment for those who like it hot. Another variation is to drench the rolls in a curry sauce with fishballs, fried beancurd puffs, and dried shrimp. Sadly, none of these approach zhar leung in awesomeness. But they’re readily available, can be fixed up in seconds, and don’t quite wield the same capacity for heartbreak.
About the author: Wan Yan Ling can usually be found in the kitchen procrastinating on "real work" or online tracking down obscure recipes. Ling thinks eating alone is no fun, and she still believes in hand-mixing.