Today I’d like to introduce you to what I, strangely, think is one of the most beautiful Chinese characters: 粥 . If you’re walking around sniffling and coughing and see this character outside a Chinese, Japanese, or Korean restaurant, you’re in luck.
Zhōu, jook, congee, okayu, it’s a food with many different names that I would imagine evolved independently in all of these countries, and well, anywhere that serves rice. When all you have is rice and some stuff to put in it and you want something warm, porridge is the way you go. It makes rice go a long way: 1 cup of rice will easily make 4 hearty servings of porridge. Unlike oatmeal or cream of wheat in the U.S., though, rice porridge is generally savory and can be eaten any time of day, though is commonly eaten for breakfast in China.
It’s cold winter day food. Sick people food. Baby food. Poor people food. Zhou is widespread and will fill your stomach like a simple hug. You can add whatever you want to it to make it however you’d like, and as thick or thin as you like it. The southern Chinese will add ground meat, a few finely chopped mushrooms and very thinly julienned ginger, maybe even some raw peanuts, and top it with green onions. Northern Chinese might add spinach and keep it simple. Japanese might add fish eggs and pickles along with green onions. Koreans might throw abalone or some of their beloved kimchi in there .
The type of zhou that I like to make when I’m sick is generally somewhat thick (8:1 water to rice ratio), cooked slowly, and often vegetarian. I bring the rice in the water to a boil, then turn it down to very low simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally to make sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot. While it’s cooking (about halfway through), I add finely chopped shiitake mushrooms, and then when it’s almost done, some spinach, then top it with green onions. I’ve been known to put peanuts in mine too, at the same time as the mushrooms. It can cook for as little or as long as you want, but I’d advise that you give it at least 40 minutes of cooking and stirring and let it cool for a minute before you eat it.
Today’s zhou is a sort of hearty sino-japanese hybrid. I’ve added the mushrooms and spinach and topped it with green onions, Yuzukoshō, one of my mom’s homemade salted duck eggs, and bonito flakes. (Now, mom, you know one thing you can do with those salted duck eggs you made!) Let’s hope it scares off the germs that have been bothering me this weekend!
For more rice porridge goodness and ideas, check out the wikipedia article. Only if it was a beloved food to many would such a simple dish have such a long wikipedia article.