break the record

When I eat chun-bing, I think of the smell of early spring in northern China. When I was a kid, springtime in Beijing was always associated with sandstorms. Dry wind brought sand from the desert to the northwest, and the arid smell was moistened by sparse spring raindrops. The air was full of growing things: willow catkins flying, poplar blossoms blanketing the ground, beetles hitting the window glass while from the street below I heard the sound, long-forgotten, of kids at play.

My mother said that spring is the season when children grow, and the olfactory stimulation was accompanied by the coursing of hormones through my young body. My mother was a good chef who kept a changing repertoire of dishes on the table as the seasons turned. Bus it was only at this time of year that chun-bings appeared, and in this way the wrap full of fresh vegetables that lay on my plate acquired a ceremonial significance. It was the beginning of a cycle, the aspiration to grow. My mom would count the number of chun bings I ate. Every time I took pride in breaking the record I set the previous year. On those cozy spring evenings — wolfing down half a chun-bing in just one bite, the juice of spinach, bean sprouts, and carrots bursting in my mouth and mingling with the flavor of the wheat wrap — I felt that everything was getting better. 

xuhui zhang, architect

xuhui zhang, architect

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missing Chinese street food

When I eat chun-bing, I think of college. When I was a student at Shenyang Normal University, chun-bing was our cram food of choice. Before tests, my three best friends and I would often buy them at a food cart just outside the north gate of campus and take them with us to our dorms or the library to eat during marathon pre-exam cram sessions. The school was huge, with three cafeterias, and there were plenty of food options, but popping out for a few chun-bing was always the quickest, tastiest choice, and my friends and I would eat them at least twice a week. If it wasn’t chun-bing, it was other kinds of fast food: mala tang, doe seuk mein, fried rice. We never ate alone; getting one thing for yourself was no fun, but if you got more than one, you could share. After I came to the U.S. for grad school, I started really missing Chinese food. That was when I began teaching myself simple dishes like stewed eggplant or scrambled eggs and tomatoes. At Fort Hayes University in Kansas it was hard to find Chinese ingredients, and sometimes my classmates and I would drive three hours to an Asian grocery store to buy Chinese chives. Now, at Junzi, I’m responsible for testing out new recipes and food concepts. Sharing the taste of home with friends has become my job.”

eva qiu zhang, assistant operation manager

eva qiu zhang, assistant operation manager

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bite into spring

When I eat chun-bing, I think of my grandmother. We always ate chun-bing during the first day of spring, and my grandma called it ‘biting into spring’. For her, every holiday was an occasion to tell a story or share a piece of folklore. On the first day of winter she’d cook us dumplings and explain how they got their Chinese name, jiaozi. Or on the night of the Double Seventh Festival, she’d take me to the grape arbor in the courtyard of our apartment building, and we’d sit there listening to the wind rustling the leaves while she explained how on this day, back in old times, everybody would eat mooncakes and watermelons and the girls would hold needle-threading competitions. Every season had its special food: In winter she made meatball soup with cabbage and tofu, and in summer she cooked bitter melon and chilled eggplant salad. My parents both worked demanding jobs, so my grandma cared for me and did all the cooking. She cared a lot about food, about what it meant. She always cooked three meals a day, never served leftovers, and made sure every meal was balanced. For me, that’s what love is about. Chinese people never say “I love you.” Instead, they cook you food.”

wanting zhang, co-founder, operation director

wanting zhang, co-founder, operation director

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mom's spare style

When I eat chun-bing, I think of my mother. I grew up in Harbin, where my mom worked as a switchboard operator. She had a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am approach to cooking, throwing meals together as fast as lightning, and her favorite dishes were no-frills foods like griddle cakes or chun-bing made with a few simple ingredients: blanched julienned potatoes, fried cabbage, tofu strips, or just whatever happened to be at hand. When I came home from school she’d often whip up chun-bing fixings for dinner, and we’d sit together in front of the TV rolling and eating our wraps, watching soap operas or detective shows set in the 1920s or 30s with the volume turned down low so we could talk if we wanted to. My mom wasn’t a gourmet chef, but her spare style of cooking shaped my taste for food, and even today I find simple, unembellished dishes the most satisfying. I could wolf down a plain bowl of noodles with just a bit of salt and a few veggies—I’m not interested in fancy sauces and spices that mask the real taste of the ingredients. Everybody’s taste is different, that’s what’s so magical about cooking. Everybody, given the same ingredients, will make something totally different.”

ming bai, co-founder, designer and artist

ming bai, co-founder, designer and artist

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finding grandpa's chun bing

When I eat chun-bing, I think of my grandfather. Grandpa was a famous chef — before the Revolution he cooked for one of the richest merchant families in the Tangshan area, east of Beijing. He started out as a kitchen boy at age 14, and eventually became so skilled that he was called upon to prepare banquets whenever any of the family’s six brothers hosted important guests. When I was little, living in the countryside, my grandpa, who’d long since retired, would cook us chun-bing every year after New Year’s. I’ll always remember the scene: him standing over the giant wok frying chun-bing wrappers while my mom worked the bellows and fed firewood into the stove. We kids stood around and watched, our mouths watering from the smell. It was a tough time, and we were very poor, so the ingredients were simple: shredded cabbage, bamboo shoots, a little bit of meat, sometimes homemade sweet-potato noodles that we made ourselves. But Grandpa’s chun-bing were unforgettable. Nowadays I go to chun-bing restaurants whenever I get the chance, even try making them myself, hoping to recapture that taste – but nothing compares with Grandpa’s cooking. So it’s a really special thing that my son is working to bring the taste of chun-bing to people in the U.S. His great-grandpa would be proud!”  

ying wang, mother of yong, first believer of junzi team

ying wang, mother of yong, first believer of junzi team

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the tale of Mr. Bing

yong zhao, co-founder, ceo, photographer

yong zhao, co-founder, ceo, photographer

When I eat chun-bing, I think of my school years. Chinese school kids usually go home for lunch, but when my friends and I wanted to feel independent, we’d make up some excuse to tell our parents about why we had to stay at school during lunchtime, and hang out playing soccer in the courtyard instead. Then we’d grab a quick meal at a chun-bing joint just around the corner—the chun-bing we ate there were pretty simple, just beef strips and lettuce in wheat wraps, mostly. Or when my friends and I went to the swimming pool together, there’d always be a lady selling potato chun-bing off the back of her bicycle, and we’d eat them while relaxing after a swim. When I was in college at Peking University there was a chun-bing station in the cafeteria, and because it was quick and I could get them to go, I’d often eat chun-bing three or four times a week. My friends got so used to seeing me with a wrap in my hand that they took to calling me ‘Mr. Bing.’ That’s part of what inspired me to start Junzi Kitchen. I wanted to show people that Chinese food can be simple, healthy, and satisfying, something you can eat every day.”

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