I'm Cold and All I Want is Jook, So Here's My Recipe for the Best Gruel You've Ever Had

The comfort food my family (and Hong Kong) has been making for generations.
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Louise Hung
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The comfort food my family (and Hong Kong) has been making for generations.

Today was the first day of snow in Yamaguchi!

snowy yamaguchi.jpg

I woke up this morning to hear my husband say, "Oh my God," from the living room. Sure someone was dead, I clenched up, waiting for the bad news. 

I should know better. 

Mr. Louise is missing the chip in his brain that tells him how to differentiate the tone between "Oh my God 2016 has claimed another life" and "Oh my God, it's a winter wonderland!" I can't tell you how many times he's said to me, "We need to talk..." and I've been sure that he was going to either leave me or reveal to me that he's one of the lizard people. 

More often than not, it's something like, "We need to talk...about the noise the washing machine is making." His somber tone brought me to tears and took a year off my life when, one time he took my hand, looked me hard in my eyes, and said, "We need to talk...about getting a Christmas tree."

He did it again this morning. 

"Oh my God," he said in his low, serious voice. 

"What?! Are you OK? What's happening?!"

"Look outside." He said flatly. I feared I'd see an apocalyptic zombie nightmare. 

Nope – it was snowing! The biggest, fluffiest flakes I'd ever seen fell from the sky, the banks of the river behind our house were white and sparkly with frost, thick wisps of mist snaked around the mountains in the distance. Yamaguchi looked like Bob Ross had gotten a discount on a shitload of white paint. 

After I leveled out from the rush of conflicting emotions I'd experienced only minutes after waking up, I realized exactly how COLD I was. 

Me and my chicken hat go out for an afternoon walk in the snow, which had started to melt by now.

Me and my chicken hat go out for an afternoon walk in the snow, which had started to melt by now.

I fully admit that I'm a weenie in the cold. For four of the past six years I've lived in tropical climates; before that I lived in Los Angeles. I may have spent years in the cold of St. Louis, but since then my skin has gotten considerably thinner. When it drops below 70, I'm generally freezing. 

And while I love the snow and get a kid-with-a-snow-day type of thrill out of waking up to it, I'm not good at functioning in it. I'm THAT friend who's always cold. That person who irrationally infuriates you because she's always wrapped in scarves and shivering while you're sweating through your t-shirt. I hate movie theaters in the summer.

From November to March, I drag a space heater from room to room with me. 

My next line of defense against the cold is jook. 

What is jook you ask?

Jook is Chinese rice porridge, or congee. It's a thick, usually savory, rice soup that resembles how many would imagine the "gruel" of fictional peasants. 

It is my A-number one winter comfort food, a holdover from my childhood. It fills you up, it requires very little skill or money to make, and it's a blank canvas for almost any flavor. 

Cooking jook in my tiny, metallic kitchen. 

Cooking jook in my tiny, metallic kitchen. 

Traditionally, Chinese jook (there's also Japanese and Korean) is flavored with chicken, pork, ginger, scallions, and an additional protein like thousand year old egg, abalone, shrimp, chicken, or beef. It can also be eaten plain, as a side dish to offset more intense flavors, or as a catch-all for flavorful meat and vegetable scraps. 

Though you can eat it any time of day, it's often consumed as a breakfast food in Hong Kong. Some of the old, hole-in-the-wall jook shops are busiest early in the day. 

My favorite shop on Sai Kung Street in the Jordan neighborhood of Hong Kong was dimly lit, small, and ancient. They gave you giant bowls of piping hot jook with your choice of chicken, pork, beef, or some sort of fish of the day; they'd do a vegetarian one if you caught them on a good day. You were expected to order fast, eat efficiently, and get out so the next person could eat. A bowl the size of my head cost about USD $6, and came with tea and a giant fried dough stick or yauhjagwai, which translates to "oil fried devil" or "oil fried ghost". 

My preferred way to eat jook is with a vegetarian base (so no meat stock) and with either vegetables, egg, and/or fish. I like lots of white pepper and spicy chili oil too. 

I don't have the recipe flair of Claire, but I want to tell you how to make jook. 

My version is a variation on the recipe my mom makes (which is the best one of all, FYI), which itself is a variation on the recipe her mom and grandma made. It's imprecise and requires little more than dumping stuff into a pot and tasting it until you like it, but once you find your jook, you'll want to lock that sucker down. 

So here's the way I make jook. I hope it warms you up this winter. 

What you'll need:

A big pot – I prefer a giant stock pot because it gives me lots of room to add liquid and ingredients. A smaller pot can work, but your jook may runneth over. 

1 cup short grain rice white rice – more if you are using a huge pot, but 1 cup makes a lot of jook. I'd say 1-1 1/2 cups rice is good for a large stock pot. 

Vegetable stock – you can also use chicken stock, or no stock at all if you prefer a bland jook. I start with 1 cup of stock for every 1 cup of rice, and keep more standing by to add for taste. I usually end up using closer to 2 cups. I think. I told you I wasn't Claire. 

Water – do I need to tell you this?

Things to make your jook tasty:

Scallions, to taste

Grated ginger, to taste (I like a lot)

Salt or soy sauce, to taste

White pepper (black works fine too, but white gives more of a kick I think), to taste

Chili oil, to taste 

Bacon – I don't eat bacon, but I know lots of people who put bacon chunks or fatty, smokey, porky things in their jook. I've been told it makes it excellent.

Your choice of vegetables – really, it's hard to go wrong. I like choi sum or bok choy, and mushrooms. But get creative! I've seen sweet potato jook and jook with peas and carrots. 

Protein (optional) – Chicken egg or duck egg (thousand year old or just regular hard boiled), quail egg, shrimp, chicken, pork, beef, – again you can't really mess this up. I throw in enough pre-cooked protein to flavor the congee and give me a good mix of bites with and without egg or fish or what have you. Some people like their jook lousy with protein. 

I feel like I could on and on with this list. I throw "unusual" things like star anise or curry powder into my jook all the time. I've yet to make a concoction I don't like. The key is to show restraint while adding ingredients, and taste often. 

Let's make jook!

1. Wash your rice. If nothing else, this step is the only one you can't be lackadaisical about. It really does make the consistency of your jook smoother, less sticky and lumpy. 

To wash your rice, just submerge it in water and vigorously rub the rice until the water looks murky. Drain the water, and repeat. Do this until the water is mostly clear. 

For Louise's mom's extra gold star, let your cleaned rice soak for about 10 minutes. I often skip this step because after washing the rice, I'm impatient. 

2. Put your clean rice in your pot and add water. 

I like my jook on the medium thick to soupy side, so I add about 8 cups of water. If you think you might like a thicker jook, start with 6 cups of water. You can always add more water at any time, and you probably will. If it gets too thick it's like paste.

If you're using vegetable or chicken stock, add this in now too. 

3. Stirring frequently, bring your rice and water to a boil. Once it starts to boil, turn it down to a simmer and loosely cover. 

If at any point it looks like your water is almost boiled away, add another cup or two. My mom's jook, like the jook I've had in Hong Kong, should be like loose oatmeal. While it does not have lumps, the rice retains a hint of texture, it's not smooth like grits. 

4. Once your jook is starting to thicken up, you can start adding in flavorings if you like. I add lots of white pepper, chili oil, soy sauce, and vegetables (not mushrooms yet) at this point, and stir. I also do a taste check to see if I need more stock. I usually do. 

I swear it's tastier than this looks. 

I swear it's tastier than this looks. 

5. After your jook has been simmering for about 45 minutes to an hour (stir it every once in a while to break up the skin), add in mushrooms, ginger, or any pre-cooked meats. If I'm using shellfish or shelled and deveined shrimp, I just dump them in raw. I let everything simmer for another 15 minutes, stirring a couple times. 

Don't forget to add more water or stock if you need to!

6. After 15 minutes, taste your jook to see if it needs more seasoning or stock. If not...

Your jook is done! Eat it!

Spoon your jook into bowls and sprinkle with more scallions, white pepper, chili oil, or if you like, drizzle some sesame oil. 

DELICIOUS!

Somebody else's beautiful minced beef jook. 

Somebody else's beautiful minced beef jook. 

Your jook will keep for about five days in the fridge. Just add a little water every time you reheat it. Honestly, the best jook is two-day old jook in my book. 

I really hope this "recipe" made sense. Any questions?

Have you ever had jook? Do you like it? What do you like in your jook? 

Tell me how your jooks turn out!