Gloriously bland

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When I’m feeling ill or slightly under the weather, one of the first things to go is my appetite. That’s right, if I’m not hungry then I’m obviously ill.  It’s also in times like these that I feel the need to restore balance to my palette and eat plain, bland food rather than the usual assault of chillies, spicy and pickled foods. We all have our own comfort foods, the one dish (perhaps from childhood) that you always return to when you’re a bit run down and is the culinary equivalent of a big hug. Soups and broths have great restorative qualities, but that’s something to discuss in another post, my dish of choice is congee, or juk as we call it.

Juk is something that I have fond memories of from childhood – My parents would make a big pot for the family for what felt like every Sunday (or at least when we didn’t go out for Dim Sum). Pork bones would be salted overnight and used as a base flavour for the juk. When I was really young, Mum would expertly extract the little nuggets of meat from the bones for me to eat as a treat. Dad would sometimes come home with fresh youtiao to go with the juk which my family would absolutely love, but I have never really got into youtiao to be honest – I much preferred slices of white bread spread with margarine and dip that into my juk.  I loved the savoury element of the juk contrasting with the bland white bread, combined with the butter-like flavour of the margarine.

You can get many variations for the base stock; sometimes we would get salted chicken and I remember on one occasion when I first went to Hong Kong, Dad got up at the crack of dawn and got a whole beef fillet which he hand chopped and made into little balls then added them to the juk. I remember one of my sisters getting all excited because it was beef FILLET, but it was kind of lost on an 11-year-old like me. All I remember is biting into one of the beef (fillet) balls and wondering what the fuss was about (and wonder if I was allowed to go outside and play on my bike or something).  Fast forward 20 years, I can still taste the first bowl of juk we had in Mongkok when last in Hong Kong a few years ago (dried fish and peanut, one of my favourite variations).

I also remember a cousin coming over to our house on one occasion and pretty much eating the whole pot to himself because Mum had made one of his favourite variations of juk. Sadly, we don’t have juk so often at home anymore, so it’s something we always order when out for dim sum for that nostalgic and comforting sensation.

Going back to the original point, I’ve been feeling a bit under the weather recently so haven’t been in the mood for anything too rich or flavoursome as I won’t really appreciate it. Plus the fact that I feel a bit delicate so I find the only thing I can bear thinking about eating is plain juk:

I soaked a small bowlful of rice in water for about 30mins – I also soaked some conpoy in lukewarm water to give a slight base stock flavour but you can easily do without.

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Drain the rice and empty into saucepan, add a little salt and oil, then rub everything together so that the rice grains are broken and covered in oil. 4 times the volume of rice used (in this case, 4 bowls) of liquid are added to the crushed rice (plus the soaked conpoy).

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From here, the mixture is brought to boil (careful, it will boil over if you don’t keep an eye on it), then lowered to a med-low heat so that it bubbles away gently. Now here’s the important part – Do NOT stir the mixture. If you do, the rice will stick to the base of the pan and burn. So long as you keep the flame low enough so that it bubbles gently, you should be OK.

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As the mixture bubbles away, it will thicken as the rice cooks until eventually you get a gloopy consistency rather like rice pudding (from a tin, anyway). If it’s too thick and is more like rice, then you can always mix in a touch more water. At this point, you can season to taste but personally, I love the fact that it’s so bland – There are days when bland is the best thing ever and this would be one of those occasions. It’s thick, gloopy, there’s a slight hint of seafood from the conpoy – which also provide a chewy texture. It’s completely the opposite of what I would normally eat but at times like these, there’s nothing more gloriously satisfying as something so bland and tasteless as plain juk

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You can view the full set of photos on My Flickr

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