25 Feb / Chook, Jook and Congee
I was surprised when I posted a picture of my Chinese breakfast on Castaway Island Fiji, and was inundated with requests on how I make it. It was a bowl of piping hot rice congee or jook (in Cantonese) topped with a colourful array of pickles, chilli and crunchy things! I thought what do you mean how to cook it? Doesn’t everyone know that you just boil rice with plenty of water to make congee? But I realized it might not be so easy if you didn’t grow up with it. Cooking congee, jook (in Cantonese) or mi zhou (in Mandarin) comes easily to me because I grew up with it as a staple in my diet. But there is knack to getting the right consistency to turn a watery white gruel into the creamy, thick, tummy-warming hot breakfast that every Chinese knows well.
Jook to the Chinese is like chicken soup to Europeans; an age-old remedy for sickness, babies and the elderly. It is eaten from cradle to grave and is the most well known comfort food throughout Asia. Congee is usually the first non-milk food given to babies, sick kids and the elderly (especially once their teeth start falling out!). It is the ultimate comfort food; eaten when one is not feeling well and it also has a reputation as hangover cure.
HOW TO MAKE BASIC RICE CONGEE
1. Wash the rice
The Chinese always wash the rice, regardless the packaging. Use a big pot or plastic bowl. Add water to rice, stir the rice and water vigorously. Rub the rice grains using the palms of your hands. The water should be murky by now. Pour the water away. Repeat the washing until water is clear. Do not throw the starchy rice water away; use them to water your plants. Let the rice grains stand in the clear water for about 15 minutes to absorb.
2. How much water?
It all depends on the consistency you want to achieve. I like my congee to be thick thick while others like it of medium consistency. There are basically 3 consistencies and it corresponds to the rice-water ratio.
Thick : 1 cup rice to 8 cups water
Medium : 1 cup rice to 10 cups water
Thin : 1 cup rice to 13 cups water
This ratio is for cooking porridge over the stove top where more evaporation takes place. Reduce slightly for a slow-cooking crockpot or rice cooker.
3. Stovetop cooking
Add the water and uncooked washed rice grains to a pot. Bring the cold water and rice to a boil before lowering the heat to a simmer. Stir occasionally to prevent the rice from sticking together or to the bottom of the pot. Stirring is important because rice grains, being much heavier than water, will inadvertently settle to the bottom, stick to the pot and burn. Some cooks like to add 2 metal spoons to the pot to prevent burning, as the spoons become agitated by the bubbling and do the “stirring” for us. To achieve the Cantonese congee creamy consistency, the rice must be at a cooking for at least 45 minutes to allow the grains to breakdown completely.
4. Seasoning the congee
A good basic congee is seasoned with a little salt, Chinese chicken powder and white pepper, as the ingredients you add later have plenty of seasoning on their own.
Must-have Congee Garnishes
Few drops of Chinese sesame oil
light soy sauce
green spring onions
fresh young ginger, sliced and shredded very thin
fresh and dried chillies
Softened shiitake mushrooms
Fried wonton skins or crullers (fried dough)
Chinese congee preserved vegetables
Dried fried shallots