Chook, jook and congee

With any more readers looking for low cholesterol and gluten free options for breakfast, Chef Seeto explains that a 3000 year old rice porridge recipe might just be the perfect start to the day

Earlier in the week I was surprised when I posted a picture of my breakfast 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? When I sat down to write today’s story, I realized it might not be so easy if you didn’t grow up enjoying it.

Cooking congee 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. After the AON Fiji Excellence in Tourism Awards wins last week and celebrating with my staff at the infamous Whitehouse nightclub till 4am in the morning; all I craved was a piping hot bowl of jook once I got back to my island home.

This ultimate comfort food is also on the Fiji Airways business class, breakfast menu for Hong Kong.

Tradition, of course, plays a large role in congee’s appeal, as if the rice porridge has been hard-wired into the DNA of the people who have been consuming it for centuries.

The earliest reference to congee dates back to approximately 1,000 B.C., during the Zhou dynasty in China, making it a more than 3000 years old.

Regardless of its starting point, the basic recipe for jook has not changed over thousands of years. Depending on where you live in Asia, congee might have been prepared with millet, barley, corn or even a legume such as mung beans, mixed with or without rice.

For some reason, the South China version made with rice has conquered all, probably because it’s creamy and warms the body like being held in your mother’s arm. It has to be the blandest food you’ll ever fall in love with!

Although congee starts off bland, the rice bowl can be transformed into a colourful combination of flavour, texture, colour and heat that can be eaten as a meal or late night snack too.

Bowls studded with shredded pork, ginger and preserved ‘100 year old’ duck egg lends the porridge a woodsy, almost fungal flavour.

Congee mixed with any fish or seafood cooked in soy sauce, sugar and sesame oil creates a kind of rice fish soup. A more gourmet version can include marinated beef, squid and peanuts.

On Castaway Island we have a jook station with plain congee and a multitude of ingredients from Chinese congee pickles (available from Yon Tong in Marks St Suva), crunchy fried shallots, finely julienne Fijian ginger, peanuts, dried and fresh chilli, and slices of raw fish marinated in soy and sesame oil.

This is not a sushi version of jook, as when you pour the boiling hot rice over the fish, it quickly cooks in the bowl.

My ultimate favourite jook recipe comes from my father, who used to make his version of chicken and garlic jook in a slow simmering crockpot before he went to bed, especially if us kids were sick.

I would creep out of bed in the early hours of the morning to steal a bowl of his chicken-infused soup, savouring its creamy thick texture and satisfying my tummy before dozing back to sleep.

But the secret of the perfect congee is the consistency. With an influx of Chinese tourism, especially at this time of the year, many resorts have this option on their breakfast buffets, but it is poorly cooked and resembles more a watery soup of floating rice.

If it’s not creamy with all the rice grains completely broken down into a thicken porridge; it’s not jook!

Finally, a quick wrap up of the AON awards dinner at the Sheraton’s brand new convention centre last weekend.

I was humbled that my 1808 fusion restaurant picked up the Best Fine Dining Restaurant for the 2nd consecutive year, but it reinforced that local chefs cooking local cultural-fusion cuisine with fire and flame, can compete with the best in the world; and win.

The Sheraton banquet team’s service was impeccable, the food looked pretty and the venue was absolutely spectacular.

But like many of the 550 tourism stakeholders in the room that night, I don’t know why they didn’t utilise the local talent and creativity of Fiji’s Chef of the year, Abhinesh Sharma, the award winning sous chef at the Sheraton Tokoriki Island resort.

At least we wouldn’t have had to stop at the BBQ stands on the way home to enjoy something a little more Fijian.

* Lance Seeto is a multi award-winning chef and television host based on Castaway Island Fiji. He is also Fiji Airways’ Culinary Ambassador and can be contacted at www.lanceseeto.com

* Watch Taste of Paradise for new episodes every Sunday 7.30pm, and repeats of previous episodes at 4pm, only on Fiji One.

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