Thursday, March 13, 2008

Congee is magic

About 6 months ago I was walking home from class at 9 or 10 at night.  I was hungover, feeling like I could get sick if not careful.  The local chinese place was closing up shop for the night, but there were still a couple of customers waiting at the counter for their orders.  I popped my head in and said one of the few chinese phrases I could remember from my previous Mandarin classes.  "you have congee?" (translated from the mandarin, of course).  The guys at the grill just smiled and shook their heads.  What did I think this was?  A chinese restaurant?  I mean where Chinese food is cooked?  I must be crazy.

So I walked on, dejected, unable to get my warm revitalizing fix.  I knew they wouldn't have it, but I thought, "just maybe they make it for the staff..."  or some other silliness.  I needed to wait till morning when I could drag myself over to chinatown.

So what is Congee?  Why is it so important?  Basically, Congee is rice and water, cooked to death, literally.  I have heard differing opinions of the ratio, from 5-1, to 8-1, to 10-1, water to rice.  But rice and water are the core, the Juk, as the chinese call it.  

But anybody who has tried to just cook rice and water to death (i mean upwards of 8 hours, at least) knows that it won't taste like much worth eating at the end of the simmering eternity.  Some of the basic additions, and I think most important ones, are (lots of) salt, ginger (thin strips of fresh ginger), scallion.  Then comes the major players - fish cake, pork, chicken, beef;  basically any meat you like.  You can also load it up with mushrooms and veggies, of which I would recommend baby Bak Choi and chinese Broccoli, but any veggies are fair game.  The most important addition for the downtrodden is the thousand year egg.  It is really just a normal egg, aged for 100 days.  It has terrific warming qualities, but must not be consumed often, as it can be toxic in large doses.  Only when sick with a cold/flu is a good rule.

The basic idea behind soup or porridge when ill is quite simple:  When ill, the body is fighting on several fronts to remove toxins, viral, bacterial or otherwise.  It cannot muster the normal amount of energy required to processing and extracting nutrients from the food we eat.  So we make it a little easier, we cook our food.  And we cook it.  And we cook it some more, until it is so broken down by the time we ingest it that it can just slide right down.  The stomach has relatively simple time breaking it down.  What's easier on the stomach is by design easier on the Duadenum-pancreas-gall bladder complex that follows - where most fats and carbs are broken down; and then the rest of the small intestine - the site of most of the absorption of nutrients from our food; and finally the large intestine, for easy removal of waste and water re-absorption.  If less energy is required in breaking down our meals, then less energy will be diverted from the most important process, that of removing toxins.

Why is Congee so useful in these cases?  It is cooked like three times longer then mama's chicken soup.  The thousand year egg, if added, has been microcosmically decomposing for 100 days, the meat and veggies used have been boiled or steamed to death, all told, this meal is tremendously easy on the system, but also full of nutrients and fluids, two vital elements in the art of healing.

Where do we get congee?  Well, experimenting with making good congee is elusive, most recipes just say:  Water, Rice, salt - then add what you want.  So it really is a personal project, if undertaken.  If you live near a chinatown, go to one of those chinese places where no white people go, they should have it.  Some places make it only late at night or in the morning, as it is breakfast in much of China.  The places I have gone in NYC serve it at all hours.

if in new york, Congee Village is a good bet.  That's usually where I go.  I also like "New Wing Wong" on lafayette at canal, which has a partner place around the corner on Canal.  

Some places use MSG, so it helps to ask.  MSG is not very happy, and should be avoided.  

Next time you're ill try out Congee, I'm sure, after you feel the warmth, the lift of this vital food that you will agree with me that it is some magic shit.

Be Well.

1 comment:

Karina said...

I feel the need to make congee now... well, not this second, but in general, would like to master the art. I'll get back to you with the results... or, I'll just make you eat it too.