Tuesday, 13 July 2010

In Praise Of Porridge

A typical rice porridge complete with dried mi...Image via Wikipedia
It is 7:30 am and I have just finished a bowl of porridge for breakfast; the oatmeal variety with a dollop of honey stirred in.

This hearty fare sticks to your ribs and is a great starter on a cold winter's morning.  As a child we often had this for breakfast but in those days before the advent of dietary heath consciousness a sprinkle of brown sugar and fresh cream would accompany the meal.

I had a friend who lived on a dairy farm a few  miles away in the country and whenever I stayed with him we used to get pale gold cream fresh from the dairy which was an even better topping.

Oat porridge is an ancient food and has been found in the stomachs of 5,000 year old Neolithic bog bodies

My first experience with porridge in Singapore occurred in 1982 when I was returning from a week's holiday in Penang and was homeward bound for New Zealand on a 'red eye flight', with a day's stop over in Singapore.

Quite by chance the seat next to me was occupied by a very friendly Brunei business man who, on discovering that I was an art museum director with an interest in Asian art, invited me to join him at an exhibition of contemporary Chinese masters which as staged at the Chinese Chamber of Commerce.

First though would I  like to join him for breakfast in town?  The answer was of course in the affirmative and so off we went by taxi to the Mandarin Hotel.

Would I like a bowl of porridge for breakfast?  Yes of course.

The Book of Jook: Chinese Medicinal Porridges--A Healthy Alternative to the Typical Western BreakfastImagine then my surprise when instead of oatmeal, a bowl of rice gruel was placed before me.  The accompaniments of small dried fish, salty duck egg and pickled vegetable we at that time equally foreign but  enjoyed the experience nevertheless.

Over the years I have grown to love porridge or to give it its Singapore name, congee or jok.  There are various styles but my preference is for the Taiwanese variety. One can have it with braised duck, fish, century egg or shreds of chicken meat.

For the officianado there is even frog porridge which tastes sweeter and is a more delicate meat than chicken. Frogs take three years to grow to a size that is acceptable for the pot whereas chicken takes just three months.  It is therefore usually a more expensive variety of porridge.  Reportedly a pot with two frogs costs about $Sing 14.

There are online forums dedicated to the relative merits of Teochew porridge stalls which many people prefer to the Taiwanese variety.

According to the experts Teochew Porridge must have the "Mountain and the Sea", in other words the right proportion of water and rice.

"The Teochew Muay connoiseur can tell you immediately if a particular Teochew Muay stall is worth eating at by just eyeing the bowl of porridge. Firstly, what we want to see is the "Swa ga Hai" (Mountain and Sea) which basically means that the porridge is watery but not overly watered down. Secondly, the rice must remain whole and unbroken. The best Teochew Muay places throw away the pot of porridge when the rice breaks."

My favorite condiment is a fermented bean curd known as 'Chinese cheese' (fuyu) which is pungent and gives the rice a bite.  It is not to most westerner's taste but that has never stopped me.

Porridge of both western and Chinese varieties are very good for those in their dotage so it will no doubt remain a staple in the years to come!
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