My face aches. Something is definitely amiss. I open up my mouth and stare at my back molars. I probe my gums with my finger. Red, inflamed, tender. Yup, infected.
Today I get my tooth extracted. After confirming my suspicions of infection, my dentist refers me to an endodontist and asks me if I have any questions.
“Yes. How long before I can eat?”
I get home and my husband looks concerned. He inquires,” How long will the procedure take? What type of anesthesia do they use? What is the risk of infection?” When I looked at him dully, with no light in my eyes, I realize, “ Oh, THOSE were the questions I was supposed to ask.” Not just, “When will my next meal be!” I fish through my messy purse and give my husband the number to the endodontist’s office. Happy Dialing. Now back to food planning.
I speak to my mom who is preparing our weekly Wednesday Night Family Dinner. I can see her in my mind cradling the phone between ear and shoulder as she rolls out dough to make fresh scallion pancakes. Oh wait, back to reality - she is jotting down our order for take-out. She gave up cooking years ago. This mid-week tradition popped up as my kids became miniature professional athletes who seem to have games at all sorts of times during the jam-packed weekends. The need to keep the once a week ritual of breaking bread together, or slurping noodles, is a strong one for my mom. Even if it’s not on a Sunday. And it’s take-out. After all, we’re an Asian family- our connection stems around food.
My adorable Chinese Mama exclaims “Your tooth?! What should I make you? I don’t have any soft rice!”
Emergency! Call Congee 911!
Congee, or soft rice is also known as Shi Fan and Jook. It is what my mom made to heal whatever ailed us. Yes, there was a day when she cooked. And she cooked, and cooked, and cooked. The breakdown was 90% Asian and 10% Western meals, which was all she could slide by my Dad without a fuss.
What is congee? It is a rice porridge with vast medicinal purposes according to Traditional Chinese Medicine. Different ingredients are added to satisfy your taste buds and according to the therapeutic properties you want to impart. There are entire books written about how to prepare congee medicinally for all sorts of ailments. It also happens to be the perfect food to eat when you have no use of your teeth.
In China, congee is a common breakfast dish as well. During a stay at a Zen Monastery in the mountains of Vermont, just before sunrise and after an hour of meditating in a room where I could see my breath, I made my way to the dining room for breakfast. I lifted the lid of a crock pot, fully expecting oatmeal, but found congee. I was on a silent retreat, which was new to me, and seeing the steam rising from the rice porridge brought me home and comforted me in my foreign surroundings. Simple ceramic rice bowls rested next to the crock pot with sliced green scallions, red chili garlic paste, golden ma yu or sesame oil, and a small spouted pot of soy sauce. I scooped out my comfort from the crock pot, drizzled it with oil and sprinkled small amounts of each topping onto my congee. The golden brown of the sesame oil with the vibrant green scallion and the brightness of the red hot chilis were striking against the starkness of the cool fall morning.
After meditation and congee, my spirit and my stomach were at peace.
Zen Monastery Congee
1 cup rice
2 tsp salt
8-10 cups water or broth
Combine rice all ingredients in a thick-bottomed pot. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Lower heat and simmer for 1 – 1 ½ hrs, stirring occasionally to prevent the bottom from burning. Congee is done when it reaches a creamy porridge like consistency.
Additions - to be added and cooked with other ingredients
Meat - Before serving, cut it into small pieces and return to pot.
Ginger- add a 1 inch piece of ginger
Garlic – add 1-3 cloves of chopped garlic
Sweet potatoes, carrots, orange squash – bite size chunks
Peas – add these towards the end of cooking
Sesame Oil, Chili Garlic Sauce, Sriracha, Nori, Chopped Scallion, Julienned Ginger, Soy Sauce
There are really no rules to congee. Add what you have a yearning for and see what happens. To learn more about thereapeutic congee recipes read The Book of Jook, Chinese Medicinal Porridges by Bob Flaws.