If I were magically in charge of the world, I would decree that everyone should have an Asian grandmother. I’m a big fan of grandmothers in general—though sadly I have none myself—and know they come in all sorts of great varieties. There are Italian grandmothers, Jewish grandmothers, and many more. In my experience, however, there is something special about Asian grandmothers.
I know this, because I’m lucky to have one myself.
She’s not my real grandmother—my family hails from Europe, not Asia. I’m a little too old to be her granddaughter as well. I fall somewhere between the age of her children and grandchildren. But she is, in fact, someone’s grandmother, and she’s adopted me. I’m not sure how I got so lucky.
This is why, a few weeks ago, when I was at my wits end and overwhelmed by the idea of book touring, the phone rang. It was my adopted Asian grandmother. As we talked I started crying and she went into full grandmother mode. “This is what you’re going to do,” she told me. “You’re not going to your apartment, you’re coming to my house. The bed is already made up for you and I’m not taking any arguing.”
Then she called me every four to six hours to make sure I did it. I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but I know better than to argue with an Asian grandmother.
When I arrived, late at night after thirteen hours of driving from Seattle, she had left the door open for me. I fell into clean sheets, breathed deeply the scent of daffodils she had put in the spare room for me. And when I woke up the next morning, she made me jook.
Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever tasted jook—one of many rice porridges found throughout Asia (this recipe most closely resembles the Chinese version, also called congee). I’ve tasted it before and was unimpressed. The version I experienced, ordered at a restaurant by a friend, consisted of rice stewed soft and thick,
but it had no flavor. On top were things like barbequed pork and green onions and I figured that the charm of jook was the interplay between the flavorful toppings and the neutral taste of the jook. It wasn’t bad, but I didn’t see what the fuss was about. I knew I’d never order it myself.
Asian Grandmother jook, however, is an entirely different thing—at least the jook my Asian Grandmother makes. The rice tastes of ginger and garlic, thick and comforting. The toppings—chopped celery leaves, dried shallots, pickled radish (shown above)—give it textural interest. There may be meat mixed into the rice as well, but the whole thing is full of flavor. It’s the sort of food that would send a cold or flu packing.
I told my Asian grandmother I had never tasted jook so good, that the other version I’d had had been flavorless.
“That’s because they didn’t love you, darling,” was her reply.
She told me you should never order jook in a restaurant. “They might cook the rice in broth,” she said. “But when it cools it thickens—and they just thin it with water. You need to use broth if you want it to keep the flavor. Jook is a dish best eaten at home.”
I would add that jook is best in the home of a Chinese grandmother, but I’m biased.
I wish I could convey how intensely comforting, how full of flavor, how restorative this dish is. It made me think that perhaps this is how the Chinese developed such an advanced civilization—inventing gunpowder and noodles and tea and Meyer lemons (three of these being things I live for). I also think that the curative properties of jook have not been fully examined. I suspect regular doses may keep any number of ailments at bay, even cure some of the nastier diseases. It’s that good.
It’s crossed my mind that jook may just be the road to world peace. Warring armies would surely put down their guns if they knew that jook was on offer. They’d cradle the warm bowl in their hands and sit down, shoulder to shoulder with their enemies, and all eat together and be happy. That is the power of jook.
At least that’s the power of jook made by an Asian grandmother. Mine was generous enough to share her recipe with me. I’m not joking when I say I’ve been given the secret code, the keys to the castle, the restorative cure, the way to anyone’s stomach. With a power like this, I might be able to rule the world after all. And if I did, I’d pass a proclamation: jook for everyone!
If you don’t have an Asian grandmother of your own, this recipe is the next best thing. I suggest you whip up a batch. It may just be the cure to whatever ails you.
In the meantime, I’ll get working on that world peace scheme. We could all use a little of that as well. Jook and peace for everyone, and all praise to Asian grandmothers.
ASIAN GRANDMOTHER JOOK
Recipe courtesy from my adopted Asian grandmother, Lian.
Makes at least four servings.
My adopted grandmother says that jook—like polenta and risotto—is a dish made with loving care and takes some tending. “You can’t just make it and forget about it,” she says. “These are dishes made with love.”
2 cups short grain rice (Cal-rose or sushi variety is fine)
6-8 cups of good quality chicken stock, preferably homemade
3 cups chopped leek, white parts and the tender green bits
1/2 onion, chopped
1 head garlic (about 1/4 cup) minced
1/4 cup ginger, peeled and julienned lengthwise, then cut across into tiny cubes (if you like ginger, you can increase this to 1/2 cup)
3 tbs oil for sautéing
2-3 cups chicken meat or pork, shredded or chopped. This is a great way to use leftovers. If you prefer a vegetarian version you could make without and use vegetable stock, it would just need to be very flavorful.
Toppings, as desired:
Chopped celery leaves
Chopped green onions
Pickled radishes, chopped finely (chaypo—available in Chinese markets, rinse and soak briefly in white vinegar)
In a large pot, sauté the onion and leek in the oil for two minutes on high. Add the garlic and ginger and cook two minutes more. Add the rice, washing it first, and sauté briefly until the rice is coated in the oil and has become shiny. If the ingredients begin to stick to the pot, add a little bit more oil.
Add 4 cups of the stock, bring to a simmer, cover and turn down the heat to medium. You want a slow simmer.
Keep an eye on the pot (this is where the loving tending comes in). Stir occasionally, and as the liquid decreases, add more, a cup or so at a time. Keep the pot covered in the meantime. The rice will absorb more and more broth, becoming swollen and eventually breaking down into smaller pieces. Keep an eye on it, and slowly add more broth. At a certain point you will notice that the mixture is less individual grains with a clear liquid binding it, but has become more of a porridge, a mixture with lumpy rice bits. This is when you want to pull it off the stove. It will take up to a full hour to get there.
Add the meat, if you are using, and serve with various toppings. The leftover jook will solidify as it cools, but you can loosen it up by adding extra broth. Don’t use water.
Eat, sigh, enjoy. And give thanks for Asian grandmothers everywhere. I do.