Untitled by Dad Bear
Congee, a photo by Dad Bear on Flickr.

Hong Kong is known as the food capital of Asia, and not without reason. You have a choice of both western and asian cuisine or even fusion cuisine. One can also enjoy meals fit for a king (which cost as much too), along with meals which are enjoyed by the man (or woman) on the street. During my last trip to HK, surprisingly, it was a simple bowl of pork porridge which was the highlight of my short stay. So simply done and yet so delicious. This led me to read up a little on what the Teochew Chinese call Muay, and the Southern Chinese, in particular the Cantonese call Jook.

To my limited knowledge, both versions refer to rice cooked in copious amounts of water, many times its weight. The main difference between the two would be the amount of water added to the rice, and how fine the rice granules ultimately become. Teochew Muay usually refer to a soft form of rice granule served in hot rice water (called “ahm”). The Muay is usually very plain tasting, and flavor is derived from the food that you take it with. More often than not, items like salted eggs, preserved salted vegetables, steamed peanuts etc.  On the other hand, Cantonese Jook refers to rice granules which have been cooked in lots of water, stirred until the point that the soften rice granules break downs into a thick white broth.  By then the rice granules are no longer visible, nor can they be felt when placed in the mouth.

From an excerpt taken from the HKTB local food guide, making a good jook involves putting fresh raw ingredients into the hot and continuously boiling plain congee, with their flavors enhancing the already smooth soft-textured congee.  It is the variety of raw ingredients available, which has led to many different varieties of Jook, and as a result, the many famous restaurants that served Jook primarily, each with their own masterpiece, sprouting up all over HK.

Once considered a healthy food to be taken by people recovering from an illness or when you were not feeling well, primarily because it is easily digestible, Jook is now taken as a morning breakfast staple or a late night supper dish. Keen to sample the roast goose porridge @ Fuk Kee, we were disappointed to learn that their roast goose jook only started serving after 11am, which meant at least a 1.5 hour waiting time. Not wanting to wait, we walked down Argyle Street, Mongkok, and chanced upon a tea house (‘Char Chan Teng’) which served porridge as well as freshly prepared dough fritters (‘yow zhar kwai’).

I ordered my favorite jook, namely pork porridge with century egg, along with a yow zhar kwai to go along with the jook. The bowl of jook that arrived was beyond my wildest expectations. There were healthy chucks of lean pork, along with slices of century egg inside. However, what made it different from what you can get in Singapore was the plentiful cubes of coagulated pig’s blood. Tasting the blood cubes brought me back decades when my maternal grandpa would bring us for Sunday morning breakfast at the old Still Road alley in Katong. We would bring our own eggs to beat into the porridge, and back then, they served pig’s blood cubes too. The shop in Still Road has since moved to the Marine Parade wet market, and to date,  is still doing a roaring trade, but with the next generation of cooks at the helm, I believe. I digress. Ever since Singapore pork went the airflown frozen supply route, pig’s blood is impossible to procure. Hence it was a big pleasant surprise  to taste it again. The overall combination was heavenly. With just a sip of the jook, I could feel the warmth creeping through my body. There was no hint at all of any MSG, just the smooth feel of hot tasty pork congee titillating my palate. Together with the yow zhar kwai, the single bowl of Jook was enough to fill me up, ready for the day’s challenges.

Some quarters have it that successful restaurants NEVER wash their porridge pots. and the pot is always kept full and the jook constantly stirred. It probably makes sense. After all, why break a winning streak? That said while it may look easy, the preparation of Jook is a tough and arduous one, requiring plenty of patience, technique and stamina. More often than not, when a loved one is sick at home, it is often taken as a measure of true love for one to toil for hours over the stove preparing Jook for the sick friend or family member. Therapeutic value is derived from the ingredients used. However, as everyone knows, no matter sick one is, food always tastes better when love goes into its preparation.

So next time your loved ones or your kids clamor after you for some love and attention, offer them a bowl of jook. 🙂

More food photos from the HK trip can be seen here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tanyongkuan/sets/72157626632264539/with/5735816147/

p.s. In a scientific paper written by the late Emeritus Professor Wong Hock Boon, he advocated that rice water was the best oral rehydration treatment for infants suffering from severe diarrhea and food poisoning. So there is indeed some truth behind the therapeutic properties of  the benign looking bowl of porridge!