Saturday, October 16, 2010

Rice-ier than Rice - The Ultimate Comfort Food

With the weather as cold, wet and generally miserable as it has been in Philadelphia these past few days, I’ve found myself missing the warm, tropical climate of home. It’s been a week now since I very grudgingly put my flip-flops and shorts away, the sky’s been dark and grey, we’ve all been pelted by rain on the way to class, and they haven’t turned the heating on in my apartment building. Some comfort is in order.

“Comfort food” may be a loosely defined, subjective term (I’m told some people consider pizza comfort food) but, as far as I’m concerned, nothing could be more therapeutic than a bowl of Teochew rice porridge. Teochew Muei, as it’s called, comes from the Chaoshan region and is a variant of Chinese rice porridge that is less well known than its more ubiquitous cousin, Cantonese congee. Served in Chinese restaurants across America, Cantonese congee or Chuk is usually cooked along with other ingredients like sliced pork and century egg. The porridge is boiled for hours until the grains disintegrate, and has a texture that resembles a thick soup. By contrast, Teochew Muei is cooked for a shorter period of time, in order to maintain the integrity of the rice grains. A good Teochew muei is one in which there are soft individual grains of rice and a starchy broth. While Teochew muei is often described as bland on its own, I think it far more accurate to say that the porridge actually has a rather intense flavor – that of rice. Anybody who, like me, is a hopeless rice fiend will appreciate the way that this method of cooking results in a staple that is, in fact, rice-ier than rice itself. This makes the porridge the perfect canvas with which to pair the strong flavors of a variety of Chinese dishes. A typical Teochew Muei stall in Singapore will offer over twenty different options, including stewed pork, assorted pickles, vegetables, egg-dishes and fish.

Of course, having neither the ingredients, nor the skill, nor the energy to cook up twenty dishes, I had my Teochew Muei with just three. I made myself a salted-turnip omelette with pork floss, fried Chinese cabbage with garlic, and got some pickled spicy bamboo shoots out of a jar (which, along with a whole selection of other pickles, can be found at any Asian supermarket in Chinatown). I have included a recipe for the porridge here, and highly recommend it not only as a satisfying meal but also as an uplifting antidote to this dreary weather.

Teochew Muei

3/4 cup rice
1.1 liters water

Pour the rice and water into a pot and bring to a boil. Continue boiling on high heat, maintaining a noisy, rolling boil and stirring occasionally to prevent rice grains from sticking to the bottom of the pot. The porridge is ready after about 15-20 minutes when the rice grains are soft, but not mushy, and the broth is slightly thickened. Serve immediately with your favorite dishes.

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