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.


Anonymous E.L said...

Dear Joycelyn, thank you for your treasured recipe! It is so clear and precise, again thanks. I have been feeling overwhelmed by the excesses of Thanksgiving, Christmas and the new year. Congee is what I need to recuperate!

2:35 pm, January 17, 2010  
Anonymous Aimee said...

Love your bol with chicken motif. Very nice with the feature subject. J, your eye for details is always inspiration.

2:51 pm, January 17, 2010  
Blogger Claudia said...


Beautiful, so glad to read a new savory recipe from you... I love this kind of dish.

Just now I was reading your archives and wondering if I'd ever find the right truffle here to make that quail egg yolk ravioli. I am a raw egg eater type of girl!



8:43 pm, January 17, 2010  
Blogger Jan said...

thanks so much for the recipe and tips. looks delish! can't wait to try.

6:21 am, January 18, 2010  
Blogger Emily said...

Not being of Asian descent, I have never understood the appeal of congee (forgive me, but to my Australian palate it has always seemed like a rather odd concoction of overcooked rice and leftovers)...I should be less judgmental, for after your gorgeous and evocative post I think it's high time I gave it a try!
Thanks, Joycelyn, for broadening my horizons (after all, isn't that why we all read other people's blogs?), I'll let you know how I get on with the recipe!

9:57 am, January 19, 2010  
Blogger Anne said...

I was just thinking of how I missed your savory food posts! I actually spent an hour or so on my sofa as the rain fell looking at old posts of gyoza and pork belly. I love your pastries but also look forward to seeing your savory creations!

8:53 am, January 20, 2010  
Anonymous my spatula said...

coming from a cantonese family, i JUST made this for my sick husband the other night, but it didn't look nearly as delicious as yours! (ps. i'm a rabbit too - chinese zodiac).

12:36 pm, January 21, 2010  
Anonymous Joa said...

There's nothing like a steaming bowl (or 2) of gai juk for a bad day.
Gorgeous picture, lovely story!

10:42 am, January 22, 2010  
Blogger Nithya said...

It's so lovely to see you blogging again. I'm a vegetarian myself and will probably never try to make this, but your prose fills me up.

3:49 pm, January 22, 2010  
Anonymous Jive said...

There was something really familiar about the picture besides the congee, and all of the sudden it dawned on me. It's the bowl with the rooster on it. I have the exact same bowl at home. The bowl always reminds me of my parents homeland malaysia.

I have never tried making congee by using 2 types of grains. I am definitely going to try it out.
I usually make congee from short grain rice to get that same sort of creamy texture and I must always have at least 1 piece of dried scallop shreded into tiny strips in it.
But nothing can be more soothing that a bowl of piping hot congee on a tired sick day.

5:41 pm, January 26, 2010  
Anonymous Vicky said...

Looks lovely. I will definitely give this recipe a try as it's perfect for this winter season we are in.

11:09 pm, January 29, 2010  
Anonymous Hannah said...

I love congee, but can never get it *quite* right. I'm thinking my problem has been using just the one type of rice, and only simmering it for one hour. Thank you so much for the tried and true recipe!

10:51 am, February 01, 2010  
Anonymous Levinson Axelrod said...

Thanks for the recommendation and ideas. This looks like a great remedy for sick days.

1:01 am, April 06, 2010  

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