Traditional and fusion cooking styles, regional and international ingredients and a new awareness of healthy eating are all factors contributing to an exciting time for Chinese cuisine. We explore the possibilities.
Before I came to live in China more than 10 years ago, the only porridge I knew was made from rice, cooked long and slow until it was smooth and bubbling. More often than not, it was the base for a host of delicious ingredients.
My husband, who grew up in Beijing, is totally unused to salty congee. Porridge to him is made from cornmeal, millet or rice and red beans, and it is neither savory nor sweet. It is eaten totally plain, just as we southerners would eat rice.
Of course, we also have unseasoned rice porridge, but it is only one of several options.
And so the great culinary divide appears again. But with merging boundaries and regional influences, we can enjoy the best of both northern and southern kitchen secrets.
Let's start with the coastal provinces, since their cooking styles are relatively more influential.
In Fujian, the rice porridge, unseasoned, often has chunks of sweet potatoes added. The snowy porridge with its golden chunks of sweet potatoes is served with little dishes of highly flavored food, such as an omelette of chopped salty-sweet pickled radishes, a basin of soy sauce braised pork, highly spiced squares of tofu, and a stir-fry of finely diced long beans, carrots, tofu and more pickled radishes.
My grandfather, an old Fujianese, once said the sweet potatoes were added because rice was hard to come by in the past, and the root vegetables helped fill empty stomachs.
Chaozhou-style porridge is rice that is cooked in lots of water until the grains just bloom, but are still firm. It is served with an array of chilled seafood such as cold crab, cockles, steamed mullet and pickled mustard greens chopped up and braised in pork fat. On the table will be saucers of salty yellow beans, which act as a dip for the steamed seafood.
It is the Cantonese who have taken the art of porridge-making to new levels. Plain porridge is most often eaten as the first meal of the day, at breakfast.
It is slightly salted at the table, and accompanied by a freshly fried dough fritter, or youtiao. The contrast between the smooth silky porridge and the crisp crunch of the fritter wakes up the palate.
That is the main difference that sets Cantonese porridge apart. It is slowly and patiently cooked until the rice grains melt and fuse into a velvety gruel. It slides down the throat easily, full of savory goodness from all the ingredients it is cooked with.
There is a secret to the velvety texture. The rice has to be washed well, with a little oil added. According to the chef who shared this tip with me, the oil helps to emulsify the rice as it breaks down, and it enhances the smoothness of the final product.
It's all about kitchen alchemy.
Take that dim sum classic of savory salted pork porridge with century eggs. Once added to that bubbling pot, the pickled eggs mellow, the gelatinous white blending into the smoothness of the rice and the yolks seeming to melt into the porridge.
Another famous Cantonese congee is the raw fish porridge, in which thinly sliced fish are actually cooked by the heat of the bowl at the table. This is often served with plenty of ginger julienne and discs of crispy youtiao.
Then there is a porridge full of tender pig liver and kidney slices all barely blanched by the hot gruel, their juices flavoring the rice. Sometimes, little meatballs and pieces of chewy intestines are also added.
Tender slices of beef, well-velveted, are also a common ingredient in Cantonese porridge, as well as seafood such as prawns, lobsters and even abalone.
In comparison, the porridges in the north are simple to the extent of being austere.
Cornmeal cooked with water for a few minutes on the stove is a common accompaniment to braised meat or stir-fries, or the cold cuts and pickles that northerners love so much.
Millet and red beans are often mixed with rice for a porridge with different textures. These porridges are really very healthy and subscribe to modern wellness principles.
They are most often eaten in summer, as the temperatures rise and appetites fail.
It is also in Beijing that I first tasted sweet porridge, a combination of various grains and nuts sweetened with honey or sugar. This concoction is eaten during the end of the year, on the eighth day of the 12th lunar month, labajie.
Whether it is sweet, savory or just plain, porridge is very much a part of Chinese culinary culture, in all parts of the country.
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