Monday, January 18, 2016

A healthy spin on a winter classic

Around four years ago, I offered a traditional recipe for this iconic January dish. It’s named after the twelfth and last solar month in the Chinese year – Làyuè 臘月 – which always lands during the coldest season. And the Chinese are ready for such an occasion, as usual, this time with a hot bowl of soothing, slightly sweet congee.

The ingredients
I adore the the old-fashioned way with rice and lots of dried nuts and fruits and beans, but I also have a bit of a reputation for playing with my food. Steel cut oats are one of my go-to breakfast ingredients, and so it did not take much of a leap of imagination for me to push them into assuming the starring role in this nutritious porridge. As it so happens, the results are both very tasty and especially good for you.

Yesterday (January 17) was officially Laba Day, or the eighth day of the Twelfth Month. It is also celebrated as Buddha’s Enlightenment Day, which is why some people call this dish “Buddha Congee,” or Fó zhōu 佛粥. Old Chinese writings tell us that this congee actually originated in, of all places, India. One of the earliest sources for this comes from around 1,000 years ago in the appropriately titled Tang dynasty “Laba Congee Poem” by Li Fu, which says, “Congee of the eighth day of the Twelfth Month came from the kingdom of Brahmans,” and that in this dish “seven treasures” were combined with the rice.

A more specific description was provided by the literary sketchbook Dongjiu menghualu, that noted, “In the twelfth month, all of the great temples hold Buddha washing ceremonies, and they also provide a porridge of seven treasures and five flavors to their followers, calling it ‘Twelfth Month congee.’”

Dates, longans, & wolfberries
Whatever you want to call it, this makes for an incomparable winter breakfast. Do aim for contrasts in here, as differences in flavor, texture, color, and size help to make this bowl of comfort food really interesting. For example, I like to use multicolored quinoa, which provides lots of round, brown specks in the congee against the smooth beige oatmeal. Or, if I am using millet or white quinoa, I'd try to toss in some toasted black sesame seeds to give the eyes something to do. The apples are great because they are slightly tart and juicy, but other fruits could be subbed in easily: fresh pears or dried apricots, say. 

Use whatever you have and whatever you really like. You'll soon have an excellent reason to look forward to cold weather.

Congee updated

Healthy Twelfth Month congee
Jiànkāng lābāzhōu  健康臘八粥
All over China
Serves 4 for breakfast or a late night snack

½ cup steel cut oats
Water, as needed
¼ cup coarsely chopped walnuts
Boiling water, as needed
2 tablespoons quinoa or millet, rinsed and drained
8 large or 12 small Chinese red dates (pit them first if you are going to feed this to children and such)
16 dried longans
2 tablespoons wolfberries (gouqi or goji berries)
A dash of sea salt
2 tablespoons unsweetened shredded coconut (wide strips best)
1 small apple, cored and finely chopped
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
Grated zest of 1 orange
2 packed tablespoons brown sugar, or honey to taste

Steel cut oats instead of rice this time
1. Start this the night before by placing the oats in a large (2 quart) pan and covering them by at least 2 inches with cool water, as this will make the oats much creamier. At the same time, to get rid of the bitterness in the walnut skins, place the walnuts in a heatproof bowl and cover them by an inch with boiling water.

2. The next morning, drain and rinse the walnuts. Bring the oats and their soaking water to a full boil and add the walnuts, quinoa or millet, dates, longans, wolfberries, and salt. Lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and stir the oats every 5 minutes or so. Add more boiling water as needed to keep the mixture nice and loose, as it will thicken up considerably once it starts to cool down. After about 20 minutes of cooking, the oats should be creamy and yet still have a little bit of a chewy texture, which is what you want.

Apples, sesame, coconut, & zest
3. Turn off the heat, add the coconut, apples, sesame seeds, and orange zest before covering the pan. Let it sit undisturbed for around 10 minutes to allow the residual heat to gently cook the apples. Stir the congee, and if you want the texture a bit looser, pour in more boiling water. Add the brown sugar or honey and serve this hot. You can offer milk or cream on the side, which is not at all traditional, but I won’t tell.


Substitute anything else you’d like in there, like slivered almonds, raisins, dried cranberries, prunes, dried apricots, soaked barley, a bit of finely chopped candied ginger, and diced pears or bananas, to name just a few candidates.

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