Friday, November 18, 2011

Beijing's millet porridge

Zhou has such a different connotation in Chinese cuisine that it is really hard for me to use the word "porridge" here as its translation. English synonyms like "mush" and "gruel" don't help matters much, as they draw up images of Oliver Twist, rather than a bowl of something hot, comforting, and delicious.

In Guangdong's lavish repertoire, this dish has the English name of congee. I have seen an entire menu page filled with variations on this glorious comfort food, with additions added to the bowl by the chef, rather than the diner. 

Stir-fried seafood and pork slither in among the rice grains cooked in a Cantonese-style stock, a plate of crunchy fried dough (youtiao or "fried devils") to dip in soy sauce being my side of choice. This way there are intense salty rushes colliding with the bland doughnut slices and rich congee, and I can't think of a better way to end an evening than to wander into a Chinatown dive and cuddle up to a bowl of piping hot congee.
Exquisite grains of millet

But other areas of China revel in their own takes on porridge, and outside of Guangdong it usually shows up unseasoned so that each person can take bites of the savory bits served with the zhou and then clear the palate with mouthfuls of this amazingly adaptable dish.

Porridge, in fact, is such a central part of Chinese cuisine that whole restaurants have been built around zhou, the diners usually ordering form a cavalcade of savory side dishes before they take a seat. 

Many such restaurants in my area of California are Taiwanese, so the zhou comes to the table as a thick, bland rice soup with big chunks of orange sweet potato adding bright contrasts in color and taste. The pot is never empty at these places, customers getting the communal pot refilled pretty much at whim while they work their way through the platters of the saltier-than-usual dishes that complement the calming effects of zhou on the palate. 

But in Beijing, it's not rice that is the grain of choice for this traditional staple, but rather millet, or "little rice" (xiaomi). These tiny yellow balls are popular not only because of their low cost, but also for their gentle milky flavor and a slightly rough texture, one that is quite different from that of rice.
Millet is ready when it "blooms"

Millet is available at most Chinese markets that don't cater to a mainly Cantonese clientele, but I prefer to buy mine in bulk at health food stores, where it is generally very fresh and often organic. Buying this way, I get only what I need for that week, and the results never disappoint.

Chinese millet porridge is always a simple mixture of two ingredients: millet and water. Nothing else is added or even needed, although I've seen the occasional zhou made with both millet and leftover rice. If this blandness seems too odd or foreign to your tastes, feel free to use chicken or vegetable stock instead of water; you'll end up with a tasty pottage that needs little more than some shreds of the chicken or vegetables to snazz up the bowl.

Zhou is generally served in large soup bowls since it is meant to be the main component of the meal. So, while this recipe makes about 4 cups, it is designed to serve two people. Depending upon the time of day (breakfast, afternoon snack, or a late night meal), you can accompany it with simple side dishes of hard-boiled brined eggs, fermented bean curd, fried peanuts, or whatever else suits your fancy.

Beijing-style millet porridge 
Jīngshì xiǎomĭ zhōu  京式小米粥  
Makes about 4 cups and serves 2

Just stir it into boiling water
4 cups filtered water
½ cup millet, preferably organic and fresh

1. Bring the water to a boil in a saucepan over high heat. Stir in the millet.

2. Lower the heat to medium and stir the millet occasionally until it "blooms," meaning that the grains have popped, about 30 minutes. Serve hot in winter and lukewarm in summer.