Friday, January 13, 2012

Twelfth Month congee

China's traditional year is set to the natural rhythms of the world. Divided into twelve lunar months and 24 solar seasons, it is surprisingly accurate. I remember how one of them, Startled Insects or Jingzhe, made this so clear.

We were living in the outskirts of Taipei in the hot springs area called New Beitou. Back then, the area was still relatively undeveloped, and so some wild friends took up residence around our little home. A huge toad lived in our teeny back yard and took care of all the roaches that crossed his path, leaving little roach mummies rolling around on the concrete. A solitary bat would hand upside-down during the day behind a board propped against the wall and always come home at the sign of first light. A praying mantis made its home in the big poinsettia tree (yes) that grew by our front gate. 

Dried longans
Geckos made the fuse box by the front window their very own elephant graveyard, as that is where they went to die. It was filled with a deep layer of filagree skeletons, and we watched one night as a weak, skinny gecko slowly made its way up and into the crack by the wooden fuse box door. My husband is a dedicated animal lover, and he tried to redirect the old gecko away from its grave, but the little guy was determined, so it went, step by painful step, up to join its clan.

Which leads back in a roundabout way to the lunar calendar. I was sweeping the leaves off of the moss ground in our little front yard one morning before going to work and noticed the trilling of katydids, a sound that had been absent over the length of Taipei's long and dreary winter. Checking the calendar inside, it was the beginning of Startled Insects, a day that usually lands in early March and explains by its name that bugs are awakened at this time out of their long slumber by thunder and spring rains. 

We had no unusual storms then to speak of that I can remember, but we certainly did have our little insect friends back on the scene again. And that was the beginning of my fascination with the Chinese lunar calendar.

Korean mixed rice & beans
But it is still winter now by any calendar's calculation. The last month before Chinese New Year (which falls on January 23rd this year) is called Layue; this is when we have the two-week seasons called Slight Frostiness (Xiaohan) and Great Frostiness (Dahan). Nurturing foods are most welcome on these chilly days, and today's toe-warming congee is so perfect for this time of year that that it is even named after the month: Labazhou (congee for the eighth day of the Twelfth Month).  

You can vary the ingredients as you please (no need to be a stickler about the number eight, really), the only real requirement being that the ingredients be fresh and there be a nice balance of grain, beans, nuts, and dried fruit. If you overload it with the dried fruit, for example, it becomes too sweet and jammy. So clean out your cupboards, see what is already there, and toss in whatever you like, keeping the ratio more or less 3 parts grain : 1 part beans : 1 part nuts and seeds : 2 parts dried fruit.

Soak all of the grains, beans, and nuts overnight so that they plump up and cook more quickly. Things like peanuts and dried lotus seeds, for example, take a very long time to cook until they are just barely soft, so consider cooking them separately.  

Leftovers can be stored in the fridge, and this is one of those times when a microwave is indispensable, because if you boil the congee again, it tends to cook down into a paste; a good alternative would be steaming, as this too doesn't give the grains and beans the chance to break down further.

Twelfth Month congee can be served for breakfast or late at night; it is too filling and sweet for other times of the day, unless you have elderly folks or little children in need of something hot and comforting. 

Twelfth Month congee 
Labazhou 臘八粥
Plumped up ingredients
All over China
Serves 4 to 6 generously

1 cup rice or mixed-grain rice (see Tips)
3 tablespoons millet or steel cut oatmeal or other grains
3 tablespoons hulled sunflower seeds or other seeds
3 tablespoons mung (green) beans
3 tablespoons adzuki or other beans
3 tablespoons broken walnuts or other nuts
3 tablespoons skinned peanuts
20 dried lotus seeds, optional  (see Tips)
9 cups filtered water, plus more as needed
12 Chinese dates (jujubes), pitted and cut in half
4 tablespoons goqi (goji or wolfberries), or a handful of dried pitted longan (see Tips)
Brown or rock sugar to taste
Dash of sea salt
Toasted sesame seeds, optional

Perfect consistency
1. Start this at least 10 hours before you want to serve it. Rinse the rice, sunflower seeds, beans, and walnuts, place in a large saucepan, and cover them with water by about 1 inch. Rinse the peanuts and lotus seeds and place them in a small saucepan before covering them with water. Let both pans sit overnight to plump up the ingredients, and then drain off the water before adding about 7 cups filtered water to the large saucepan and about 2 cups to the smaller one. Rinse the dried fruit.

2. Bring both pans to a boil and simmer them until the beans are soft in the large saucepan and both the peanuts and lotus seeds are soft in the other; the larger saucepan will probably be done first. At this point, add the dried fruit to the smaller pan and add enough water to cover; bring the smaller pan to a boil and then lower it again to a simmer so that the fruits have time to plump up without disintegrating. When cooked but not mushy, combine the two and add sugar to taste, as well as a little salt. Slowly simmer the congee until the sugar is melted; taste and adjust the sweetness, if necessary.

3. Serve with a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds on top, if you wish; it's not necessary, but it adds another layer of flavor to this delicious congee.
The little green tongue = bitterness


Cook the peanuts and lotus seeds separately because they take much longer than the other ingredients.

Add the dried fruits to the peanuts and lotus seeds later on so that they stay whole and don't mush up.

Be sure and open each softened lotus seed, as they often have bitter green sprouts inside. Just pinch off the green shoot and toss it away.

Korean markets often sell a mixture of rice and beans that is great for labazhou because half of your work is already done for you. (See the photo above.)

Feel free to experiment with the ingredients, using raisins and dried cranberries, for example, instead of some or all of the dried fruit. Cashews and almonds are delicious in here. And sweetening it with honey adds a completely different aroma to the final dish.

Dried longans (see photo above) lend a wonderful perfume and are worth seeking out. The fruit looks a little like a dried lychee, and when fresh they share a certain similarity, as both have white flesh surrounding a black seed and encased in a thin shell. Longan shells, though, are tan rather than the red of fresh lychees, and when dried the flesh turns into chewy little nuggets. All they need is a soaking in boiling water to wake them up.

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