Monday, November 7, 2016

Comfort food, Teochew style

Feeling a little under the weather over the weekend, I rummaged through my pantry, trying to figure out what I could eat to assuage a scratchy throat and the sniffles. A can of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup beckoned, usually my go-to meal when there’s nothing else to eat. But I realized that I had enough to fix myself Teochew porridge. A plain rice porridge or congee, accompanied by an assortment of side dishes, instantly made me feel better. To westerners, this might seem like an odd combo of food, but generations of Chinese have enjoyed this comfort food for both breakfast and supper.

This humble food is attributed to the Teochews, a Chinese clan from the province of Eastern Guandong province who, in the Asian diaspora, have settled in countries including Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. I remember having eaten it in Bangkok and Singapore, each boasting their own signature dishes, but usually featuring a selection of delightful seafood because the Teochews are famed for their fresh, lightly seasoned fare. They are also renowned for braised meats that melt on the tongue, including duck which I love. I was even introduced to a dish of raw, pickled crabs at a Teochew porridge restaurant in Singapore. While I am a crab aficionado, raw crab is definitely an acquired taste!

Fried salted mackerel
Because the rice porridge is classically plain and unseasoned, occasionally accompanied by cubes of sweet potato, it serves as a great accompaniment to salty side dishes. When my son, B, accompanies me for Teochew porridge, he normally requests for salted fish, salted eggs and a variety of salted vegetables. The recipes that early immigrants introduced have been modified over the years to suit different tastes, so there are now also spicy dishes that definitely pique the palate and have us ordering multiple bowls of porridge.

Grandma's diced tofu with preserved radish
A white porridge lunch, featuring a variety of dishes Teochew style, was a staple in my home growing up. In addition to her signature dish of finely diced preserved radish, tofu, black beans and mince all fried together (check out My Recipes for Grandma's diced tofu with preserved radish), my mother would also serve up a plain deep-fried tofu that was delicious with her home-made chilli sauce. If they were available in the market, she would also cook clams in their shell with a bean paste and chillies. Obviously on the dining table there would be salted eggs and fish and fried or braised peanuts. It was a childhood favourite, one that obviously has been passed down to B as well.

Braised peanuts
Teochew porridge might seem like an odd choice for supper, but believe me, nothing soothed the tummy better after a night on the town, especially with too much alcohol sloshing around my insides. Together with friends I would head for a hotel that served it late into the night and tuck into its steamy comfort. Till today, there are a couple of Teochew porridge restaurants that I know of that stay open until dawn.

Salted egg
Foraging in my pantry and fridge, I managed to gather enough ingredients to cook myself a simple dinner of plain white porridge. I opened a can of braised peanuts. I fried some salted fish and hard-boiled a salted egg together with the porridge. I also fried some pickled, salted vegetables. When I sent a picture of my meal to B in Hongkong, he groaned and replied, “Lucky you!”

I then sat down to my meal and slowly savoured each morsel. Immediately my mood lifted and my sniffles abated. Some may resort to a bowl of pasta or soup as comfort food, but for me, nothing soothes as well as some Teochew porridge. 

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