Monday, March 10, 2014

Beans & rice Chinese style

Chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans) are not usually associated with China’s cuisines. In fact, until I started cooking out of the classic cookbook Suiyuan shidan I had no idea that there was even a Chinese chickpea recipe to be had. But lo and behold, they were not only eaten in the Zhejiang region 250 years ago, but they must have been around long enough before that to develop a healthy following, for the two garbanzo recipes in that book are quite good.

One that has turned out to be a favorite in our house is chickpea congee. I know, it doesn’t sound like much, but just like down-home rice and beans, this is a healthy and delicious combination. The chickpeas lend a gentle nuttiness to the rice porridge, their mealy texture mingling very nicely with the silky rice. It’s hard to explain, but its simplicity is part of its charm.

The author of the Suiyuan, Yuan Mei, described this dish in his usual concise manner: “Crush chickpeas for the congee; fresh ones are the absolute best, although older ones will work. Add Chinese yams [shanyao 山藥] or fuling 茯苓, and it will be outstanding.” (Fuling—also spelled fu ling—is a type of fungus that looks something like a little coconut. Wolfiporia extensa also has medicinal properties, and it is generally only found in Chinese herbal shops.)

I cannot wait until fresh chickpeas hit the market later on in the year, as I now know exactly what to do with them!

Mash up the chickpeas
If you read Chinese, you might notice that the word for chickpeas in Chinese is, literally, “chicken bean,” and as the old English word “pease” meant beans, this looks like the name might have been adopted from some European folks. It’s strange, though, as chickpeas are such a vital part of Arabian and Indian cookery that they didn’t cause there to be a Chinese riff on the word “hummus” or “gram.” Oh well, a linguistic puzzle to gnaw on. (Chickpeas have another Chinese name, yīngzuĭdòu 鷹嘴豆, or “eagle’s beak bean,” that also has me scratching my head.)

Mr. Yuan's suggestion that Chinese yams be added is inspired because they add a delicious lightness to the porridge and subtle textural contrast with the rice 'n beans. Just like the beans, though, they should be cooked until they are v-e-r-y soft in order to make this recipe perfect. I cut them into bits about the same size as the chickpeas so that they cook quickly; see the Tips below for more information on this relatively unfamiliar tuber.

This is a gentle, nourishing dish that is perfect for breakfast or a late night snack, although I would not refuse it at other times during the day. Serve it with whatever you like. I usually surround big bowls of it with small savory things like the tribute vegetable in the previous post, some brined eggs, fried eggs, Chinese sausages, fermented bean curd cheese, toasted peanuts… even leftovers seem to shine when cossetted by such a velvety porridge. Sweets lovers could toss some of those peanuts on top along with a sprinkling of sugar or honey (maybe even a pat of butter). Fried crullers (youtiao) are excellent, too. I mean really, the list is endless.

Chickpea congee
Jīdòu zhōu  雞豆粥
Serves 2 to 4
½ cup broken jasmine rice
½ teaspoon peanut or vegetable oil
¼ teaspoon sea salt
8 cups filtered water
1 cup cooked chickpeas (canned or ones you soaked and cooked yourself)
Optional: 1 cup finely diced peeled Chinese yam (see Tips)

1. Rinse the rice in a fine strainer, drain well, and place this in a 3-quart pot. Toss the damp rice with the oil and salt, and then let it marinate for at least an hour.

2. Pour in the water, stir, and bring the pot to a full boil before lowering the heat to a gentle simmer. Cook the rice for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Chinese yam's hairy legs

3. If you are using canned chickpeas, rinse them in a strainer under tap water. Lightly mash about half of the chickpeas and then add all of them to the pot. If you want to add the Chinese yams, do that now, too. Stir and cook the porridge a while longer until it has thickened and both the chickpeas and yams are super soft and creamy. Serve just barely hot, but not steaming. Reheat any leftovers in the microwave.


Find Chinese yams in most East Asian stores, where it sometimes is sold under its Japanese name, nagaimo. It has numerous health benefits, so it is often added to nourishing soups. These can grow to enormous lengths, but usually are sold in more manageable sections of a foot or so long.

That lovely goo
To prepare these yams, rinse off the sawdust (that's what they are packed in to keep them dry), and then use a potato peeler to remove the thin skin. The insides are smooth, white, and very slippery, and will exude a mucilaginous goo that can appear quite alarming, as there are few things that do this, other than David Bowie in "The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Rinse off the goo, if you want, to get a better grip, but be aware that more will appear, especially as you cut it more. Unlike things like taro, though, this is not a skin irritant, but rather just looks incredibly weird. Even so, you can eat it raw, as it is mild and crisp.


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