When I was growing up in LA’s Chinatown, it was our family’s ritual to head over to the dim sum parlor on Broadway every Sunday morning. The restaurant was always crowded with families waiting by the front and loudly talking over one another. My mother always seemed to know one of the wait staff who would sneak us in before it was actually our turn on the waiting list.
Once inside, a pot of Bo Lai tea would be placed on our table. It was a bountiful scene. There were shrimp dumplings, tender egg tarts and stewed chicken feet, among many other things that we wanted to stuff right into our mouths. Food seemed to magically appear as one by one the dim sum ladies pushed their full carts up to our table. They would loudly announce their goods and if necessary, cajole us if we turned them down.
But, what I often wanted more than the rich dumplings and pork-stuffed rice noodles was a large bowl of rice porridge called jook (or congee). At its plainest, it is made of nothing more than rice, water and perhaps a bit of salt and pepper. It is a food that was eaten during war and famine. A food that has its origins in hardship and want.
Inevitably, I would ask one of the ladies for some jook (the restaurant version being enriched with chicken stock and bits of meat, sometimes pork and “thousand-year-old” eggs). This would result in my mother declaring once again how she couldn’t understand why I wanted to eat that when there were so many other good things to eat: We ate it when we were running from the Japanese! When we were starving and there was nothing else! We would use one cup of rice and ten cups of water to make a pot of jook to feed everyone!
Once you make this recipe, you might start to understand my love of this simple dish and how it was able to sustain so many hungry people who had nothing but a small bit of white rice to share between them. It is soothing, settles the belly and warms you. Its flavor is subtle and clean.
Here, I have added chard that was sautéed separately in plenty of oil infused with garlic and a piece of ginger. The silkiness of the greens is perfect with the porridge and the whole thing is even better when finished with a drizzle of scallion oil, sesame oil and a shower of chopped green onions. When the oils hit the hot porridge, the smell is just intoxicating.
If you want, you can make variations of this. The easiest one is to simply use chicken stock instead of water to enrich it. You can substitute the greens with shredded chicken, pork, beef or yes, even a Thousand-Year-Old egg (a duck egg preserved in lime, causing the egg white to turn brown and the yolk to transform into a gooey green in the process). Japanese and Korean versions often add a raw egg that gets stirred in and cooked by the heat of the porridge.
Many of my favorite things to eat are simple, plain and uncomplicated. This is at the top of my list.
Rice Porridge(Jook/Congee) with Spring Greens
1 cup white short grain rice
10 cups water
2 teaspoons salt
1 or 2 pinches of ground white pepper
1 bunch swiss chard, stems removed (save for another use), rinsed, and leaves chopped into ribbons
1 clove garlic, smashed
1 slice fresh ginger, smashed
2 Tablespoons sunflower oil
Chopped scallions, greens and whites
Dark toasted sesame oil
Black sesame seeds
1. Heat pan on medium-high. When pan is hot, add oil, garlic and then ginger. Remove garlic and ginger after 2-3 minutes.
2. Add greens and stir, coating greens with oil and sauté. If your greens become too dry, add a tablespoon or two of liquid, stirring. Cook until nicely wilted, about 5 minutes. Set greens aside.
1. Give rice a good rinse to remove any talc. Place in large heavy-bottom pot.
2. Add water, salt.
3. Turn heat to medium high and bring to a boil.
4. Once it boils, turn it down to low.
5. While porridge is simmering, make greens (see above).
6. Simmer partially covered for an hour, or until mixture resembles a heavy cream.
7. Place a small pile of greens in bowl. Ladle porridge in around the greens. Garnish with chopped scallions, sesame seeds. Drizzle sesame oil generously. Drizzle scallion oil on generously as well.
8. Eat, share. Eat some more.