KUALA LUMPUR, July 4 — A rainbow of eggs. That’s what started it.
Sometimes what we find in our pantry isn’t missing ingredients, more items to add to the once-a-week groceries list. Instead, what we already have can be an invitation:
Figure out what you can make with these.
So discovering an egg carton that is a mishmash of different types of eggs: chicken eggs, still fresh (always check the expiry date!); a single midnight dusted salted duck’s egg; and the shocking pink shells of what you recall ought to be century eggs (there’s only one way to find out, of course).
A rainbow of eggs. An unlikely family. A riddle demanding, Figure me out.
These offerings seem so disparate, entirely separate entities in and of themselves, yet there is one recipe that will transform them into a single voice. Three flavours combined that will be more than the sum of their parts.
Let’s use these eggs in a congee.
In uncertain times, there is very little I find more comforting than a bowl of congee, Cantonese style. Cooked till the grains are velvety smooth but not gruesome gruel. It takes some practice, an art some would say.
Aren’t our forebears all artists and magicians in their own way, to have survived and thrived and given us life and a future to look forward to? I certainly believe so.
Aren’t those who make a pot of this wholesome rice porridge for us our families in their own way? Do they not cook for us with love, oh so much love?
And sometimes, in addition to cooking congee with love, we also add a trio of eggs.
Here’s the funny thing about salted eggs and century eggs (for me, at any rate): I could never differentiate which was which when I was a kid. Nowadays I associate the white of the salted egg with the white “snow” of the Maras salt mines in Peru, glistening like angel light in the sun.
The smoke and the charcoal and the amber of the rings in the hearts of century eggs are now ancient forests, the years etched in the trunks of petrified trees in New Zealand’s Curio Bay. Every circle is a lifetime.
And to gild the lily (oh, why not live a little?), add one more egg. Just an ordinary chicken egg, true, but so much creaminess that you’d swear the congee would be incomplete without it.
And so it is.
As are we without love in our lives: incomplete.
Whatever form it may take, love is love.
In Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film Moulin Rouge!, the bohemian writer Christian announces, in a rapid medley of song lyrics: “Love is like oxygen, love is a many-splendoured thing, love lifts us up where we belong! All you need is love!”
And that is what this bowl of congee is for me. Comfort food, slowly prepared, carefully crafted and made with love.
I’m not sure if all we need is love — love alone won’t fill an empty belly — but this bowl of congee is surely a many-splendoured thing: a meal and a comfort and a blessing all in one.
A MANY-SPLENDOURED CONGEE
To make excellent congee, we’d have to start with the best possible rice, wash every grain as many times as there are days in the week, and begin with a pot of cold water — never warm or hot — to ensure the temperature rises steadily.
Or we could, rather than starting from scratch, simply begin with some leftover cooked white rice. When frozen, these rice grains dissolve faster in the broth. Purists would balk but whatever gets me my bowl of delicious congee faster to the table is a plus in my book.
Things have changed and I have adapted. Used to be we’d have congee with toppings on the side, so as not to muddy the clean flavour of the pristine congee.
These days anything that will eschew extra cooking (laziness, procrastination, excuses — take your pick) is a boon. To make it all in a single pot saves time and washing more items than absolutely necessary.
As a bonus, adding all the ingredients in one pot deepens the flavour of the whole: the umami of fat shiitake mushrooms and the sweetness of fresh xiao bai cai.
For salted egg yolk enthusiasts, this congee is a rediscovery of how tasty salted egg whites can be. The mild pungency of century eggs, however, can be an acquired taste.
Therefore aromatics such as spring onions and ginger will help lighten the congee and avoid any single strong flavour from overwhelming each spoonful.
400g pork ribs, cut into chunks and washed
½ tablespoon salt
2½ litres water
250g cooked white rice, frozen
3-4 shiitake mushrooms, whole or sliced
1 small piece ginger, sliced
1 stalk xiao bai cai
1 egg, beaten
Salt and white pepper to taste
1 salted egg, coarsely chopped
1 century egg, coarsely chopped
1 stalk spring onion, finely chopped
First, blanch the washed pork ribs in boiling water. Drain and add to a clean pot. Mix well with the salt and allow it to marinate while you prepare the other ingredients (e.g boiling the salted egg, washing the xiao bai cai, etc.).
Once all your other ingredients have been prepared, add water to the pot of pork ribs and bring to a boil. Keep it at a gentle boil for 5-10 minutes until there is no more foam floating on the surface (you may remove the foam with a fine-meshed strainer).
Reduce the heat to a simmer and partially cover the pot with a lid. Simmer for at least two hours to allow the flavour of the pork ribs infused into the broth.
Add the frozen cooked white rice, shiitake mushrooms and ginger to the pot. Bring it to a boil again.
Once it has reached a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer once more and continue cooking for another 15-20 minutes till the congee reaches your desired consistency.
A few minutes before turning off the heat, add the xiao bai cai and one beaten egg, stirring quickly to form egg threads in the congee rather than clumps.
Taste the congee at this point and adjust the seasoning with salt and white pepper as necessary. Turn off the heat and stir in the chopped salted egg and century egg.
Ladle into bowls and garnish with chopped spring onion. Drizzle some sesame oil on top and serve immediately.
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