Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Congee for Cook The Books: "The Last Chinese Chef" (+ Winner of "The Frugal Foodie Cookbook" Giveaway)

Our current selection for Cook The Books, (the bi-monthly foodie book club founded and hosted by Rachel of The Crispy Cook, Johanna of Food Junkie Not Junk Food and me), is "The Last Chinese Chef" by Nicole Mones. As the host for this round, I selected this novel for a couple of reasons, the first being the wonderful writing of Nicole Mones, who writes about China in such a descriptive way that it makes you feel as though you are there with her. Secondly, I wanted the opportunity to have CTB "journey" to China and delve into the realm of Chinese cooking, which although I love, I have limited experience in cooking. 

"The Last Chinese Chef" is the story of Maggie, a journalist and food writer still trying to heal her heart from the sudden death of her husband the previous year. Maggie must make a personal trip to Beijing to settle a claim on her husband's estate and rather than giving her time off, her editor gives her an assignment to interview Sam Liang an up and coming Chinese chef. I won't go very far into the details so as not to spoil it for you if you haven't read it yet, but the story is about Maggie finding herself while being drawn into Sam's world and the incredible food and culture of China. Interwoven in the story, at the start of each chapter are excerpts taken from a book written by Sam's grandfather, entitled "The Last Chinese Chef" which serves to explain the history and traditions of food in China and draw the reader into this fascinating culinary world. With themes of food of course, plus love, family, growth and discovery, this is a wonderful, sumptuous book that will tantalize any foodie with the descriptions of the amazing array of food Sam cooks and Maggie tries.

Although there were many exotic dishes in the book, or dishes that one could relate to the book, from the start I knew what I wanted to make, Congee. Simple and basic, congee is a sort of rice gruel or porridge that is eaten in China as well as with some cultural variations, in many other Asian countries. In China it is considered as breakfast food, comfort food and often a cure for those feeling unwell. It can be served very soupy, or drained and is accompanied by different salty, sour, or bitter toppings. You see it a lot on menus here in Hawaii either as congee or also "jook" and to be frank, I have never been a big fan. Probably my lack of enthusiasm stemmed from my "texture issues" as things like grits and cream of wheat hold little appeal for me. Also, the few times I did try it, I thought it lacked flavor. Still after reading the description from the book, I thought it was time to give congee another try, making it fresh as Sam does with lots of little toppings. Congee also seemed to really illustrate many of the themes of the book in one simple dish which I liked. 

From the book: "Congee. It's the simplest food, the most basic. But it takes care. It's like love". He looked straight at her; she could feel him looking right through her clothes to her body, to her heart, He gave the pot a stir. "First it must have that fragrance of fresh-steamed rice. Then the toppings." He gestured to at the side counter, which was crowded with little bowls he had been preparing while the aromatic rice was cooking. There were tiny squares of crunchy pickle, slivers of greens, velvety cubes of tofu, tiny smoked-dried Hunan fish mounded up in a crispy, silvery tangle. There were peanuts, shreds of river moss, crunchy soaked fungus, and matchsticks of salty Yunnan ham.

He brought the tureen in. All the dishes around it made a pleasing circle. 

She surveyed the condiments. She selected greens, pickle pieces, and the tiny fish. Following one more suggestion from Sam's eyes, she took slippery cubes of fresh tofu too.

She mixed her congee with her spoon and tasted it. Oh, so good. She shivered. The salty and piquant flavors against the delicate fragrance of the rice, the crispy fish against the tofu and the soft gruel. Sheer goodness.

There are countless recipes for congee on the Internet and in most of my Chinese cookbooks. I took a few things from many recipes and came up with what felt right to me, adding a piece of peeled ginger to the rice while it cooked to impart some more flavor. 

Simple Congee
(Serves 4-6)

6 cups water
1 cup long grain rice, rinsed
1 tsp salt
1 1/2-inch fresh ginger, peeled and bruised

In a large pot, bring the water, rice, salt and ginger to a boil. When the rice is boiling, turn the heat down to low. Place the lid on the pot, tilting it slightly to allow steam to escape. Cook on low heat, simmering gently while stirring occasionally, so the rice does not stick to the bottom. Cook about 1 1/4 - 1 1/2 hours or until the rice has the thick, creamy texture of porridge. Remove ginger and serve with the toppings of your choice. 

Notes/Results: A thick, creamy bowl of soft soupy rice, lightly scented with ginger, it made the perfect foil for all the little toppings. Even having a Chinatown in Honolulu, I was not able to locate all of the toppings mentioned in the book but I did my best ending up with many of them. I had the roasted peanuts, the black fungus (thinly sliced wood ear mushroom, rehydrated), cubes of Asian pickles (I can't swear they were Chinese!), thin slivers of greens (a mix of mint, cilantro and watercress), little cubes of firm tofu, strips of salty, dry smoked ham (hopefully somewhat similar in flavor to Yunnan ham). I was unable to find river moss and when I tried to figure out which little dried fish to buy when faced with many choices, three groups of Hawaiian-Chinese store workers told me that I shouldn't put them in the congee/jook, saying I would ruin it so I gave up, not sure I was "feeling" the fish as a topping for me anyway. I also prepared a small bowl of green onions, because I thought the flavor and texture would work well. With my toppings and congee ready to go, I prepared my bowl with a little of everything and tried it. Surprise! I loved it, the rice was tender and the different tastes and textures of the toppings were delicious. I had my first bowl for dinner, then reheated a bowl for breakfast the next day. I think I might be a "congee convert", although not something I would eat all the time, it was really good and a nice comfort-food meal.

A terrific book and a great meal, which is what Cook The Books is all about! The deadline for "The Last Chinese Chef" is this Friday, August 28th and I'll be doing the round-up of all of the dishes inspired by the book at the CTB site right after that. Then our author Nicole Mones, who is as kind and generous as she is talented will be selecting her favorite entry and the winner will receive the Cook The Books Winners Badge to display on their blog. Didn't have time to read this selection and cook a dish? Read the book anyway--it's that good, and join us for our next selection, Peter Mayle's French Lessons, hosted by Johanna.

Happy reading and cooking!


In other book news, I am happy to announce the winner of my recent giveaway who will recieve their own copy of The Frugal Foodie Cookbook by Lynette Rohrer Shirk and Lara Starr. I wrote down the names of everyone who left a comment with their own favorite frugal foodie-style tip, (BTW--Some great frugal tips everyone!), and then randomly drew out one name.

And the winner is:

Amy from Very Culinary
Her tip was:
"We've recently been restricted to a new budget and I'm having a hard time with it. I've always been frugal with everything...except food!
I actually recently wrote about how I buy the market roast chickens and use the dark meat for one meal, and then the breast meat for two others. I've been able to stretch that roast chicken over three nights!"

Congratulations Amy! 
Please email me with your mailing address so the publisher can send out your book.
Thanks to everyone who entered!


  1. You made congee look so very tasty, Deb. And your photos are just gorgeous in this great Cook the Books post. Bravo!

  2. Beautiful job, Deb!! This was one of my favorite "descriptive" food moments in the book...that unspoken connection and the ease of the relationship and food at this point were just pivotal! Your congee is so inviting and your pictures are gorgeous! Thanks again for such a great selection :) those chopsticks!

  3. I love the book review Deb. I have never had congee but it is so interesting to me that you turned it into a savory meal instead of the oatmeal-esque dish that I always have pictured it to be. The pictures are awesome! I love Cook the Books and can't wait for the roundup.

  4. Congratulations to Amy!

    I can't wait to read this book, I've had it for awhile now.

  5. Oh, you're so in a gorgeous place and loving what you do. The congee (or rice porridge we often call) looks so good. I am a congee lover and could stay for hours at the local congee buffet here.

  6. When I was in grade school, my mother became interested in Asian cooking and started experimenting. Most of it was excellent.

    But I do remember her making congee a few times and nobody in the family liked it. It did seem bland and the texture was weird. Or maybe my pallet just hadn't evolved enough?

    You propose a solid case here, though. I'm intrigued and might explore this congee again.

    p.s. I cannot believe I won the book. I NEVER win anything. Hooray!

  7. Gasp! Such beautiful pictures. I loved your story about the whole process and how you tied each photo into the book. I have always liked congee. It looks like yours turned out great.

  8. This looks so tasty Deb! Great job with the food-styling as well. I have just posted my entry too!

  9. I love the mise you have going on there! Little bowls all around, just pleases my Virgo heart.
    Great post, I would like to try congee some time.

  10. That congee is beautiful! I must get my copy of The Last Chinese Chef back from my friend!

  11. What a lovely congee! I read the book, but have run out of time in preparing something. Maybe next time I'll actually read and cook!

  12. What a fantastic post, Deb. I have always wondered about congee, having first read about it in junior high when I was on my Pearl S. Buck kick. I loved your presentation--great photos interspersed with quotes from the novel. I can't decide whether I loved this or Abu-Jabar's book better. Both were winners.

  13. This was a great post, Deb. You were even able to make congee look good. Kudos.

  14. Wow - I've never heard of congee, but this looks so wonderful, and it looks like so much fun with all the different possibilities for toppings. The book sounds really interesting!

  15. this was a very good choice for cook the books - i love the colourful variety you have offered, which always comes through when cooking authentic chinese cuisine

  16. Your congee looks wonderful. Like you I have mixed feelings about it, but my husband adores it, especially when he is unwell, or for breakfast when he can get it. You have inspired me to have another shot at it.

  17. I love congee - a friend and I used to go for congee on a Saturday morning when we were hungover. Very soothing! Yours looks absolutely amazing! I think the addition of the ginger to the rice was a great idea.

  18. I think becoming a convert to something we had not liked before gives a particular kind of pleasure. It was interesting to read how you conquered your ghost. And your photos are a nice presentation of your success.

  19. This is something I associate with Chinese New Year's, traditionally served then. My recipe for Jook has 2 lbs. of chicken and 2 thumbs ginger, peanuts and some shoyu, cooked along with the rice in a lot of water, until the rice dissolves, then it's topped with green onions. I like your version with the garnishes on the side. This book was a terrific selection.


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