Monday, January 27, 2014

Mixed Plate: The Wrath of Congee

Yo, all my Asian brothahs and sistahs from other mistahs -- are you ready to rumble?? Tiger Moms everywhere are ready to judge meals all over the world, and cast tired looks and furrowed eyebrows across tables at what's going to be served up for CNY! Chinese tradition would dictate you're busy fretting away over a traditional Lunar New Year meal coming up at the end of January, where we say farewell to the Year of the Snake and howdy to the Year of the Horse for 2014. It's a big deal, and it's an important time to gather with loved ones and welcome the new year properly, but I also get that it's stressful like any other holiday fraught with family and drama. I say... to hell with tradition -- invite all your non-judgy friends over, who love you just the way you are, not how many hours of piano practice you shirked as a kid, and serve up the new hotness that I am naming as the Next Big/Annoying Food Trend for 2014: Congee Brunch.

My submission to Food Fads of 2014: Congee Brunch - Photo by Wasabi Prime

 True, this concept of serving up the poorest-of-poor, poverty-stricken dish the world has to offer seems anti-New Years, where you're supposed to serve rich, prosperous foods to usher in the year properly. But I've never been one for Old World tradition. I'm also not Chinese, but I've had my own food-related pressures for what to eat for shogatsu, Japanese new year celebrations. I think for symbolic meals, the importance lies in a sense of communal eating, everyone sharing, and frankly, the ease of making something interesting that doesn't take three days to prep. Congee, aka, jook/chuk, aka rice porridge, is the humble, savory rice gruel savior to making a brunch day delicious, deceptively exotic, and fuss-free.

The most joyless-looking porridge in the world, which is why it's all about toppings - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Why not combine Asian flavors with traditional brunch? We all know that ebelskiver pan is never going to see the light of day again, so just let it go. Congee is the perfect blank canvas for a wide variety of savory brunch ingredients, where guests can build their own bowl, season how they like it, and the porridge itself can be made ahead of time and kept warm in a slow cooker. Granted, congee is probably the most boring, ghostly-looking food you'll ever see. I made a triple-batch of congee, using this recipe for ginger chicken jook from It was of course modified in volume, but I also used short-grain Japanese-style rice, which just made it more gooey and glutinous, and I threw in a leftover roast pork bone, while the porridge simmered all day in a slow cooker. If you plan ahead, you can just let the slow cooker do all the work, reducing the rice into mush and extracting all the lovely flavor from a bone (if you have one) -- it just adds an extra layer of richness and little bits of meat that you can scrape off into the congee. You can do different combinations of rice (short or long grain, or brown rice), different broths (vegetable broth works too -- use mushroom for the most flavor), and modify the consistency to your taste with more or less water. I'm used to thicker, sticky porridge consistency from the Japanese rice, but traditional Chinese styles are more like a smooth, loose polenta.

Congee brunch is a badazzmofo - Photo by Wasabi Prime
Much like an omelet (or a pizza, for that matter), congee is all about the toppings. The simplest way to eat it is typically with some scallions, bits of shredded meat, a drizzle of soy sauce or chili paste, and have at your humble feast. But it can be as rich and carnivorous as you want -- we had a buffet of toppings that included homemade pork chorizo, wilted kale, fried Portuguese sausage and Spam (awww yeah), kimchee, and a ton of sous-vide eggs. Not a typical congee, but if you're ringing in the new year or any day of the week, why not blast a hole through tradition and do this Kessel Run of Brunch Deliciousness in less than 12 parsecs? Don't be such a Nerf Herder.

Rice porridge/congee is all about the add-ons, so go buck wild - Photos by Wasabi Prime
A lot of the folks who were visiting for our Wrath of Congee Brunch weren't familiar with the dish, so that was an interesting experiment in Let's Try New Things and See Who Freaks Out. Frankly, I was kind of surprised it went over so well. I thought for sure the weirdly gloopy rice porridge would turn people off -- it's one of the reasons congee has never been a favorite of mine, and yet, here I am with gallons of the stuff. But it's all about the toppings; once you pile on meats, vegetables, pickles and seasonings of your choice, it miraculously transforms into a funky-phresh multicultural bowl of deliciousness. The promise of spicy chorizo and velvety sous-vide eggs are hard to ignore, and having it mixed up in a rice porridge is a surprisingly ideal base to support these ingredients.

Setting the stage with some super-classy ambiance - Photos by Wasabi Prime
You don't need any of fancy stuff to make a congee brunch delicious. No sous-vide eggs? Just use boiled eggs. Buy whatever your favorite spicy sausage you like and fry that up instead of chorizo and linguisa. And Spam? Well, you can't get any easier than a slab of meat in a can, just don't tell people what it is, because it's fantastic in congee.We left out an array of light sweets like Pocky crackers (chocolate and strawberry, of course), and a mix of sweet and spicy rice crackers. We kicked the tires and lit the faux fireplace fires and really classed up the joint.

The birth of the Wrath of Congee - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I have to give a thumb's-up to Roy Choi and his new book, L.A. Son (thanks Auntie Susan!), which had a damn good homemade chorizo recipe that I immediately gravitated towards. I was already contemplating congee over the holidays, thanks to a wealth of leftover roasted bones, and the pork chorizo recipe looked fantastic -- the two separate but equally awesome Wondertwins activated their powers in my brain, and that's how Wrath of Congee Brunch came about.

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