Sunday, January 17, 2010

Gai Juk, Chicken Congee for the Soul

Growing up, I was put under the charge of a Cantonese amah for a while. Not a very long while; let's just say having one cook in the kitchen was key to keeping the domestic peace. Her tenure may not have been long-lived, but her legacy prevailed in the humble, honest, heartening form of juk (or zhou in Mandarin), the soupy rice porridge/gruel also commonly known as congee.

There are many regional recipes for the making of congee; some are rice-based, some not, and yet some use a mixture of rice and other grains. Some start with raw rice, others specify the use of leftover cooked rice. The style in which our amah cheh made her congee, the style I was weaned on and identify with and crave, was classically southern Chinese. A mixture of two types of rice (regular long-grained white plus glutinous) slowly, slowly simmered in a vast volume of water until transformed into velvety, unctuous comfort food. No mere sustenance, this, but the penultimate restorative, a homebrewed cureall, a magical unguent to cosset the body and salve the soul. Be it the nourishment of the very young or the very old, or the nursing back to wellness of the ill, or the simple soothing of frayed nerves, there are few things that are entrusted with rising to the occasion like congee, especially if you, like me, are Chinese in ethnicity.

As a student at college half a world away from home, congee became an antidote to the occasional bout of homesickness. Till this day, whenever I've had an especially long or trying day, there is nothing I long to eat more. W had been under the weather recently, so we'd been tucking into congee suppers - gai juk (chicken congee), pei dan sau yuk juk (preserved egg and pork congee), or yu juk (fish congee) - pretty often the last couple of weeks.

Not everyone digs pei dan. And not everyone has access to super duper fresh fish, an absolute non-negotiable for yu juk, preferably slaughtered and filleted earlier in the day at the wet market, my personal preference for using in yu juk is either grass carp or snakehead (locally known as toman). So the recipe that follows is for gai juk. Some preliminary notes:

Rice I use a combination of two rices; one for taste, the other for texture, in a two-to-one ratio. First, a fragrant long grain, preferably hom mali. This translates from Thai to "fragrant jasmine", although the aroma (hom) is really redolent of pandan and not jasmine. Mali, the reference to jasmine, is meant to describe the opalescent sheen of the grain rather than the scent. The subtle yet distinctive hom mali perfume makes an important difference to the final flavour of the congee. Second, a glutinous rice (sticky rice), as its high-amylopectin/low-amylose constitutional makeup greatly enhances creaminess.

Stock or water If you have good homemade chicken stock at hand, use that. This produces a richly flavoured congee. If not, use water (rather than canned stock or a bouillon cube). The chicken simmered with the rice and water imparts sufficient good flavour to the congee. Albeit mellower than the flavour produced using stock, I nonetheless feel it stands head and shoulders above the processed flavour introduced by the canned or cubed chickeny conveniences.

Gai Juk (Chicken Congee)
Yields about 4 servings

100 gm Long grain rice
50 gm Glutinous rice
1 Tbsp Toasted white sesame oil
2.5 litres Chicken stock, or water
1 tsp Coarse sea salt, or to taste
Half a small chicken (about 400 to 450 gm)
A slice of young ginger (about 1cm-thick)

Tong chai (salt-preserved Tianjin cabbage pickle)
Fried shallots
Scallions, finely sliced
Coriander sprigs
Toasted white sesame oil

1. Combine the two rices in a large bowl. Wash and drain three times under water, each time swishing the rice around whilst rubbing the grains between your fingers.
2. Place washed rice in a heavy-bottomed pot with a capacity of about 5 litres. Coat grains with the sesame oil. Add the stock (or water), salt, chicken and ginger.
3. Bring to the boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low and cover. The liquid should simmer at the merest blip; use a heat diffuser/tamer mat if necessary. Cook for 2 hours, stirring occasionally to prevent the rice from sticking to the bottom of the pot and scorching. The rice will have "blossomed" (the grains will have swelled and split). Remove the chicken and set aside. Continue cooking the congee for another 1 hour, stirring occasionally, until it is thick, creamy and almost smooth. Taste; season with more salt to taste if necessary.
4. Meanwhile, once the chicken is cool enough to handle, shred the flesh into medium sized pieces. Discard the skin and bones. Set the chicken shreds aside.
5. When the congee is ready, turn the heat off. Discard the ginger. Heat large soup bowls by pouring boiling water into the bowls then pouring away the water. Ladle the porridge into the heated bowls. Top each serving with chicken shreds, and a pinch each of tong chai, fried shallots, scallions and coriander. Finish with a drizzle of toasted white sesame oil. Serve immediately.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Of Cookbooks and New Year's Resolutions

Happy New Year!

I've never been much good at keeping my New Year's resolutions. But there's one resolution in particular that I've made year after year and broken - rather blithely too, I may add - as many times.

I must, I must buy less cookbooks.

Bah, humbug.

Year after year, it's not so much newfound virtuous intent that spurs me to make that doomed resolution. More like the fear that one fine day in the not-too-distant future those poor particleboard shelves whose load bearing capacity I constantly (and foolhardily) test will finally give way.

Buy another bookcase? Sadly, no can do. As it is, we're virtually walking tippy toe through corridors. Much to my dismay, there's simply no more space to shoehorn in another bookcase.

Besides, it will simply fill in double quick time, thus forcing one to come to grips with the reality that one has issues beyond just being spatially-challenged. The official designated cookbook-shoring stacked-two deep bookshelves aside, there're the sprawling stacks on my bedside table, in my study, on the kitchen counter. These stacks...these stacks have taken on a life of their own. What really started off as a way to disguise new cookbook purchases so the shelves don't look quite so crammed have grown higgledy piggledy squatter style into densely populated semi-permanent settlements.

At some point a couple of years back after the 500-book mark was passed, I stopped keeping tabs. Frankly, I am afraid to know. To put a number on it would be to quantify, to put a face to, the magnitude of my problem. Were I to cook a 5-course meal for lunch and dinner respectively everyday without ever cooking a single recipe twice, I'm going to have to live (and cook) till I'm 113 and then some to truthfully claim to have made some inroads into cooking through those books, let's not even speak of amortization.

So this year, rather than lie to myself and vow to buy less cookbooks, I've resolved instead to become a more discriminating cookbook shopper. Gone are the days (and bookshelf realty) that I can buy a cookbook on a whim, for whatever idiosyncratic reason. Henceforth, a book must possess several merits and not just one before I'll bring it home with me. Chiefly:

Form Is it attractive? Do I love the cover/photography/illustrations/food styling/prop styling/typography/layout/design/authorial voice?

Function Are there at least a handful of recipes I am keen to cook from? Would I like to learn more about the cuisine/ingredient/technique that's the subject of the book? Are the instructions written clearly? Are too many of the recipes tricky to attempt because they call for hard-to-find ingredients and/or esoteric equipment? If book in question is another book on well-represented subjects (eg. chocolate or bread or French or Italian or how to poach an egg/truss a chicken/de-bone a trotter), does it excessively replicate ground already comprehensively (and better) covered in material I currently own?

A cookbook should boast of at least 2 attributes (ideally one from each category) before I'll call it mine. It's hardly a tall order, but I am hoping the act of simply pausing to consider the place a said book has in one's collection will go a long way towards keeping profligate purchasing in check.

Wish me luck!