When I was a kid and couldn't drive, and Memphis was a somewhat less metropolitan city than it is now, I did get to try a lot of interesting foreign foods via my father's adventurous palate. But at other times I had to try and make them myself using cookbooks, ingredients available at the nearby grocery store, and my own limited skills. Sometimes I made something delicious, often I had so little concept of what the final product was even supposed to look like that I ended up with a big plate of failure.
For the past few years, I've been listening to a lot of podcasts, which remind me a lot of my early fascination with Public Radio and some of the more obscure shows that would air at odd hours. I like a lot of the comedy-themed podcasts, but one directly related to this blog is The Sporkful hosted by Dan Pashman and Mark Garrison. The two guys debate about food in various ways, sometimes going into strange minutiae like the best strategies employed at a buffet. I enjoy listening to the show, but it hasn't really inspired me to try something new or different--they tend to focus on foods that are not too far outside of the mainstream. However, the show has a handful of snappy slogans, including two that have generated some inspiration, or at least direction with my food consumption, production, and writing: "we're obsessively compulsive about eating more awesomely™" and "eat more, eat better, and eat more better™".
In this new year, perhaps our final if the Mayans are correct, I'm trying to be a little more adventurous. Not just in weird ingredients, because I've done a lot of that, but challenging my cooking techniques and approaches to food. With that in mind, today I decided to tackle something that I'd heard of, but had never eaten, and did my best to make it authentic. Congee, or juk, or 糜, or whatever you call it, is rice porridge. Normally when you make rice you use a 2 parts water/1 part rice mix, but with this you start with 8:1 and can go as high as 16:1. You end up with a thick, gelatinous, milky white porridge that serves as a base for all kinds of things.
I decided to use a few scraps from the refrigerator, which is traditional (this is a common breakfast dish of leftovers as well as a hangover cure, not to mention the fact that the rice porridge is supposed to be very easy to digest for anyone that is ill). I used shredded pork, bok choy, fried shallot rings, and a raw egg. I let the egg sit for a while, and then I added soy sauce and Srirarcha and mixed everything together. Even though this was my first time eating the dish, it was surprisingly comforting and mellow, not odd or exotic in the least. Salty and savory and smooth and crunchy all at the same time, not quite a soup and not quite a stir fry, but its own unique texture and sensation. If there were some way to prepare this quickly I think it would be the perfect backpacking food. I would have killed for something exactly like this after scaling a 10,000 ft.+ peak in the Rockies.
Like phở, I think a great strength of congee is the customization and economical use of leftovers. Next time I make this, I think I'll do it for a group and use chicken broth instead of water, and lay out a few extra ingredients like shredded chicken or tofu or other vegetables. It's always exciting to discover a new food, and even better when you can easily make it yourself and find great variations in the future.