Saturday, September 11, 2010

Chinese comfort food at its best

My husband was but a little boy during the last painful spasms of the Chinese civil war, which were being fought against the even more atrocious background of  Japan's  nightmarish aggression against the Chinese during World War II.

His father was a colonel in the Nationalist air force, and as a result my husband spent most of his formative years in posts all over China, from Manchuria in the cold north to Sichuan in the tropical highlands near Burma, and every point in between.

One time  during the mid-forties his father was transferred to the southern coastal province of Guangzhou, and since he was finally back in his home province, his father built a house for the family that extended out over the Pearl River. 

This gorgeous house also just happened to be located across the huge river from a prison, where bound prisoners would occasionally be hauled out for the firing squad. Drowning victims would occasionally float by, too, and all of this was not so much frightening as terribly exciting to a little boy, in part because this constituted normality in a world ravaged by civil and world war. 

The bizarre and violent were everyday occurrences, so much so that the very first newspaper headline he remembers proudly reading aloud to his mother was “Changchun renrou shangshi” (human flesh being sold in Changchun). Horrified, his mother snatched the newspaper out of his hands, and since this four-year-old didn’t know the meaning of what he had read, he was confused at her lack of praise.

However, not all was macabre in his world. Every day small boats would punt by his family’s home, and he could reach down through a hole in their deck to buy a bowl of tingzai zhou, or sampan congee. This is a disarmingly simple dish that belies some pretty sophisticated ingredients: a piping hot rice porridge is poured over handfuls of perfectly cooked fish slices, whole shrimp, and calamari, all contrasting and yet in perfect harmony with chopped peanuts, fresh cilantro, and delicate slivers of ginger and green onion. It’s hard to believe that people actually cook this on little boats with not much more than simple charcoal braziers.

If any Chinese dish embodies pure comfort, it's congee, a word that really doesn't translate well. The reason for this is that "porridge" in English means something bland, probably with oatmeal, and served for breakfast. Either that or it has something to do with nursery rhymes. In any event, it doesn't summon up images of delightful, toe-warming goodness, scents of mushrooms and sweetly aromatic rice, and a savory broth.  Six decades later, this is still a dish that brings back strange and yet happy memories for my family, a delicious bowl of health and nutrition for even the most uncertain of times.

Truth be told, the inspiration for this recipe lies squarely with Simon Hopkinson, who has a delicious recipe for congee in his book, The Vegetarian Option. I will have to thank him personally for this one of these days... over countless years I've tried dozens of different ways to make the perfect bowl of congee, and he definitely showed me a particularly delicious way. Another version can be found here.

A perfect bowl of congee
Zhou  粥
Serves 2 generously with enough for seconds

1 cup jasmine rice (white rice hands-down works better than brown here)           
6 to 8 cups stock of any kind
4 tablespoons rice wine
1 teaspoon light soy sauce, or to taste
4 green onions, tied into knots
1 thick, thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger, smashed with the side of a cleaver

Garnishes (choose from any or all):
Lots of fried green onions (see the March 2010 post)
Some oil from the fried green onions
Stir-fried mushrooms, vegetables, meat, poultry, or fish
Eggs fried sunny-side up
Shredded green onions, chilies, cilantro, and/or ginger
Fried peanuts, slices of preserved eggs (pidan), or fermented bean curd
More soy sauce or some chili oil, roasted sesame oil, black pepper
1. Rinse the rice (if needed) until the water runs clear. Add it to a large, heavy stockpot with the stock, rice wine, soy sauce, onion, and ginger. Bring about 6 cups of the stock to a boil and then lower the heat to the very lowest setting. Stir the pot every 10 minutes or so and add water or stock as needed to both keep the rice floating in a pool of delicious flavors and to prevent it from sticking on the bottom. The rice will be ready after an hour or more when the grains have blossomed into soft little puffs, but don't overcook the rice to the point that it becomes gluey. It's important to be able to see each individual grain and to be able to feel them as they gracefully glide across your tongue. The most important key to a perfect bowl of congee is cooking it to the exact point of doneness -- everything else is secondary. Remove and discard the onions and ginger. Taste the congee and adjust the seasoning as needed.

2. Divide the congee into two large soup bowls, leaving enough room for a generous assortment of garnishes. If you want, let people decorate their own bowls. If you have any leftovers, microwave just before serving it so that the rice doesn't mush down as it heats.

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