No 4: Congee
Beef congee, one of my favorite especially with a douse of raw egg.
Many people I know don't like jook or congee because they think it's only for sick people or people with dentures. When I ask my white friends, they passionately express disgust for congee which surprises me since congee is like a thin porridge. I've seen a white guy enjoy congee in HK but then he had a Chinese wife and he was very likely from Europe where they are more, let's say, all-rounded when it comes to food unlike most Americans/Canadians/English (I exclude Australians because the country really is amazingly varied and international in their cuisine) whose attempts at eating Chinese food seem to only include chow mein, dumplings and fried rice*. I think people who taste congee for the first time cannot appreciate the 'blandness'. They miss the subtle flavor and smooth texture, especially if their cuisine is short on soupy food.
As I type this post, Blogger doesn't even recognize congee and it is underlined in red. So to those who don't know, congee is Chinese rice gruel (yes, gruel, so in the past--and present-- when most people were poor, families could only afford congee and not boiled/steamed rice because you could make lots of congee with a little bit of rice) made from boiling rice with plenty of water (most Asian countries have their own versions, with the Korean congee also called juk) for hours until the rice grains break down into a smooth watery gruel. Malaysian congee is thick and not so broken down, while HK congee is very thin and the rice so disintegrated that it is almost glue-like (which I don't quite like), giving a very smooth texture. With the first sip, Sabah congee (I can't speak for West Malaysia) tastes of salt and msg-sweetness whereas with HK congee, you first taste the flavor of the rice and the smoothness of the gruel rather than the saltiness and I didn't taste any or much msg.
There are two categories of congee: the Cantonese congee, which my Hub likes, has meat ingredients in it whereas the Teochew congee, which I like for its simple, clear taste, is plain rice gruel and eaten with side dishes which are usually quite salty such as salted ducks' eggs, preserved veg, fried fish etc. There's a third type which I don't like and which my Dad ate only if he's not well or when mom's dinner didn't appeal to him but he still had to fill his tummy. That's the Shanghainese pao fun ("soaked rice") where hot water is poured into regular cooked rice (you may cook it for a minute or two if using leftover cold rice) and eaten with side dishes. Strange enough my kids seem to like pao fun, so I guess they really are quite Shanghainese.
Cantonese congee can be so varied because you can throw anything in. Some of the most popular congee in HK are tang jai jook (sampan congee, concocted by HK fishermen of the past who lived on wooden boats called sampan, which has dried squid, peanuts, century eggs, pork shreds, pork skin and who knows what else), gab dei jook (yummy congee of shredded pork and pig liver, guts etc--my Dad always cooked this for us on weekends), jue hoong jook (pig's blood jelly congee--I'm told it's delicious), pei dan soe yuk jook (century eggs and shredded pork congee), beef slices jook, fish slices jook and many many more.
On our last morning in HK, we ate congee in a fast-food style chain congee restaurant (above picture) behind our hotel. I may be hasty in my judgement since this is the first time I've eaten congee in these kinds of congee restaurants: I don't like their congee, something's lacking and I can't quite figure out what. Somehow, I prefer traditional old congee shops, even old chain restaurants like Ho Hung Kee that specializes not only in congees but noodles as well. True HK congee lovers like my friend H will only eat congee at certain restaurants. I found that the congee in most old-style congee restaurants in HK very good.
Fish slices congee, HK$17/RM7.70/US$2.30.
So okay, this was good, the fish very flavorful, tasty and fresh and the congee smooth.
Sampan congee, HK$17.50/RM8/US$2.40.
This wasn't tasty. So disappointing.
Congee is usually eaten with crullers, a fried Chinese bread. Although congee is usually eaten for breakfast (by the old folks especially), it is also a supper snack since it isn't too heavy on the stomach. Sometimes, when we overeat and need that waistline to go down, we eat congee in place of a proper dinner. Because of the large amount of liquid, you will fill up quickly but also become hungry faster. Plain congee is very good for cleansing your digestive system, especially if you have eaten something nasty. Nothing helps you recover from diarrhea better than salted plain congee, and nothing else, for about 24 hours. This was reported by a team of researchers in England about 20 years ago. Why I believe that is because my daughter had recurrent intestinal infection as a baby and each time only plain congee helped, and when the British announced their findings, I wondered why they didn't ask me and saved their time and money.
HKgers love their congee and you shouldn't leave for home without trying at least one bowl of HK congee. That's why congee is No. 4 on my list.
* (11/9/08) A reader, Brian of Canada, has objected to this. I've thought about it in bed last night and realized that he was right, that I don't know enough about Canadians' (and Americans' or even Europeans') appreciation of Chinese food and I had made a flippant statement. I would be insulted too if someone generalized Asians' eating choices to pizzas and burgers only. My apologies to all those who aren't what I've said they are. Yet having said that, I think congee is not something that a lot of non-Chinese like to eat, even if they are eating more than fried rice and chow mein.
I've stubbornly left out the Brits because like I told Brian, my impression was based on the few white Brits I know (I shouldn't pick races, but I mean to point to the sometimes lack of adventure in certain people in eating other foods) and none of them love congee. It is a generalized statement based on my knowledge. I'm waiting for a Brit to tell me he/she does like congee. Even if this turns out to be a Mizoram post (those who have read that post and comments will understand), I welcome it because only when we openly share about ideas and issues can we learn more and be less ignorant and bigoted, and I'm speaking more for myself.