I was really struggling last week. After finally succumbing to the relentless cold that has been plaguing the office (and all of New York City, it seems) for weeks, I took two days off. Sometimes, when you’re body is running on fumes, you just have to listen to it and slow down.
Growing up, whenever I felt under the weather my mom, grandmother and aunts were always armed and ready with an arsenal of random traditional Chinese remedies. There was always a specific cure for whatever ailed me at the time. Their repertoire included pungent antidotes like Tiger Balm (an old-school, Chinese Vick’s vapor rub on steroids) for when I was congested, and “Dit Da Jao”, a soy sauce-colored herbal wine used to rub on my many bruises (I was a clumsy kid).
These mystical medicinal beliefs extended to food too. In traditional Chinese medicine, fried and spicy foods are thought to cause yeet hay in the body. Cantonese for “hot air”, yeet hay causes a handful of fun maladies ranging from pimples, to sore throats, to nosebleeds. The only way to counteract an excess of noxious hot air in the body, I was told, is to eat “cooling foods” like fresh fruit, steamed veggies, and bland dishes cooked with little oil. As a little girl prone to strep throat, I can still remember being lectured for eating too many Pringles and not enough fruit and veggies.
The most popular panacea in my family used to counteract illness and yeet hay was jook (or congee), a modest porridge made of rice. No matter what ailed me, be it the stomach flu or an ear infection, there would always be a simple bowl of jook lovingly made for me to eat. It is truly nourishing food.
The jook of my childhood was always made with white rice. It was purposefully bland and simple, meant to be easy on the stomach. However, if my mom or grandma was feeling particularly fancy that day, she would throw in some sliced ginger and pieces of chicken to stew with the rice.
Most of the time though, the jook itself was painfully boring. The fun part is the toppings. In our household, it was usually a variation of pickled bamboo shoots, cubes of fermented tofu (“Chinese Cheese”, my grandma would call it with a smile), and dried pork floss (think…beef jerky meets cotton candy) with a dash of white pepper powder on top.
Now, whenever I’m feeling under the weather, I look to a warm bowl of jook to comfort me. This version is made with brown rice simmered in shiitake mushroom stock, which gives it such a depth of flavor. It kind of reminds me of mushroom risotto. The key is frying up some garlic, ginger and green onions before you stew the rice…no blandness here! Though it seems like a lot of work, all of this is easy enough to do with a low running fever…speaking from experience.
We’ve been having our first few legitimately cold weeks here in Brooklyn, so my mind has been drifting to warmer memories lately. Last summer, Ryan and I somehow found ourselves on the ridiculously beautiful isalnd of Balesin (hi, thanks Dullas) in the Phillipines with some of our closest friends. It’s a tiny jewel of an island, only accessible by one tiny prop plane that flies from Manila once a day. Breakfast every for me every morning on this island was a big plate of local tropical fruit and a bowl of piping hot congee stewed with chunks of fresh seafood. Simple bliss. The best part though, was that the congee was served with a side of fish sauce and fresh kalamansi (a kind of Filipino kumquat-lime hybrid) for you to season to taste.
As an attempt convince myself that I was on a lush tropical island, rather than sick in bed, I topped off my jook with a handful of chopped cilantro, a few dashes of fish sauce and a squeeze of lime. I also added some fried shallots and fried chili oil, just for fun. And just like that I brought a tiny bit of Balesin to Brooklyn.
Brown Rice Jook with Shiitake Mushrooms
For the Jook
1/2 a package of dried shiitake mushrooms (15 ish mushrooms)
1 cup brown rice
9 cups shiitake mushroom broth/vegetable broth/water
4 cloves garlic, sliced
1 inch ginger, minced
3 green onions/scallions, cut in 2 inch pieces on the diagonal
Toppings – up to you! I used the below:
handful of chopped cilantro and scallion
slices of fresh lime
a few glugs of fish sauce
fried chilli oil
Additional thoughts and suggestions on how else to to pimp your jook:
– dropping an egg directly into the pot once your jook is almost done, enough time to soft-boil the egg (runny yolk and rice…need I say more?)
– top with a variety of pickles: onions, ginger, radish…
– a sprinkle of togarashi on top
– splash of soy sauce and sesame oil
– all of the above
Soak dried shiitake mushrooms for an hour or until rehydrated. The dried mushrooms will float at first, so I’ll usually put a ceramic bowl face-up on top of the mushrooms to hold them down. Alternatively, if you don’t want to wait you can also boil them on the stovetop until soft. Once they’re tender, trim the remove the stems and cut into quarters. Set Aside.
In a large pot, sauté garlic, ginger and green onions in olive oil until fragrant. Stir in chopped shiitake mushrooms and add 1/2 tbs of soy sauce, stir-fry with other vegetables until incorporated. Add brown rice into pot and mix together.
Pour shiitake mushroom water by the cup into the pot you get to nine cups. Usually I’ll run out of mushroom broth by the seventh cup, so I compensate with vegetable broth or water to get to nine cups of liquid. Cook on medium-high heat until it starts to rolling boil. Once bubbling, turn the heat to low and let it simmer covered on your stovetop for a half an hour.
Keep an eye out on it, the cook time will vary depending on how you like the consistency. For a soupier jook, you can probably take this off the heat whenever the rice is soft. I wanted a more porridge-like consistency this time around so I let the rice sit for a little longer to thicken up.
Top with whatever ingredients you’re in the mood food (see above for some recommendations)