My Citizens, there is an ancient Chinese curse that aptly sums up the situation we all find ourselves in, seemingly throughout all of the albatross year of 2020 – “may you live in interesting times.” We do indeed have that – in spades! As promised in an earlier post, I am making a concerted effort to do something that actually feels quite unnatural to me: making really easy recipes with standard pantry ingredients.
Citizens, I give you – jook. This is a rice porridge beloved by billions of Chinese as a breakfast or snack throughout the day – and it is a palimpsest for different flavor profiles, as you are about to discover for yourselves!
Now, I have my own personal version of jook, and as you might expect, it uses many expensive and rare ingredients – but that is for another time.
Today, I wish to share a simple yet totally authentic (at least in spirit) jook for all of us self-quarantined and needing a REALLY easy recipe to work with! For those of you who are ill with the virus – never fear, it can also have healing properties depending on what you put in it and is extremely gentle on the stomach.
To prepare the dish, rice is simply boiled in a large amount of water until it softens significantly. Congee can be made in a pot or in a rice cooker. Some rice cookers have a “congee” setting, allowing it to be cooked overnight.
The type of rice used can be either short- or long-grain, depending on what is available and regional cultural influences. Culture also often dictates the way congee is cooked and eaten. TFD feels that the ideal rice to water ratio is 1:8, but feel free to experiment with less (more makes it too watery, IMHO).
In some cultures, congee is eaten primarily as a breakfast food or late supper; in others, it is eaten as a substitute for rice at other meals. It is often considered particularly suitable for the sick as a mild, easily digestible food.
Savory jook, generally cooked with salt and often fresh ginger and other flavorful ingredients, is usually eaten with zhacai (pickled vegetables), salted duck eggs, bamboo shoots, pickled tofu, wheat gluten, with other condiments, meats, crab or hundred-year eggs.
Other seasonings such as white pepper and soy sauce may be added after the congee is cooked. Grilled or steamed and deboned fish may be mixed in to provide a different texture.
Besides being an everyday meal, congee is considered to be food therapy for the unwell. Ingredients can be determined by their supposed therapeutic value as well as flavor. It is also used to feed infants.
The origin of jook is unknown, but from many historical accounts, it was usually served during times of famine, or when numerous patrons visited the temples, as a way to stretch the rice supply to feed more people.
The Autumn porridge festival is celebrated by villagers eating congee together on that day, the meaning being that they pray for everything to go smoothly and to build a good relationship with the neighborhood. A village called Lingshuicun to the West of Beijing celebrates Liu Maoheng, a Qing-era Juren who helped villagers during a period of famine, through the autumn porridge festival.
Now, since this is the COVID-19 variant of jook, I challenged myself to come up with a version that is true to the original, but uses standard ingredients we all might have in our pantries during quarantine. In place of the pickled vegetable, I would suggest a good western cucumber pickle instead – or even relish, if you’re so inclined!
In place of the Chinese bacon, I recommend pieces of western bacon instead for the jook. Peanuts (preferably with their skins, as the Chinese enjoy them) are totally authentic in the dish, and scallion and ginger are items hopefully in your pantry as well.
I call for meat or vegetable stock (preferred) or canned soup stock in place of the usual water for additional flavor, but water is also just fine. Century eggs are a classic addition to this dish, but I recognize most non-Chinese don’t have these hanging about in your pantry – substitute hard boiled (or soft-boiled, if you so prefer) egg.
All that said, and I can’t believe I’m saying this…feel free to change this recipe up to your own liking! For example, I have added two ingredients that are known anti-virals (and also tasty in this dish) but are rarely used in jook – if ever. I speak of fresh garlic and turmeric, which will stain the dish a lovely shade of yellow if you use it. Both ingredients are very optional.
You might consider enjoying this with after another Chinese dish, as a way to use up leftovers – Hainan chicken rice is a perfect example. Leftover chicken can be shredded into the jook, the carcass can be used to make the stock, leftover rice thrown into the cooked jook to thicken it and any leftover condiments can be put into the jook as well for extra flavor. Have some leftover steak – slice it and add it – the options are limied only by your own personal tastes and imagination.
This may not be a jook the Chinese would recognize, but it is true to the spirit of the original and again – we all need to make do and stretch our pantry items to the max!
We need to support and be there for each other in these dark times – I will do my utmost to keep you occupied and entertained during quarantine. For example, if you haven’t already tried our new podcast, shame on you as its a revelation of both the wondrous and delicious. You can listen to the first 3 episodes here.
Stay safe – and know that TFD has your back!
Battle on – the Generalissimo
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