Vegetarian Congee

Two years ago, on Jacob's first trip to Hong Kong, we stayed with my great aunt in North Point. On the first morning my aunt dashed downstairs to her favorite congee stand, and came back with a big take-out tub of plain congee and you jia gui, or Cantonese fried dough. We instructed Jacob to dunk a piece of fried dough, and sprinkle some white pepper on the congee before eating. One mouthful later, he was hooked and couldn't stop talking about congee for the rest of the trip.

This simple rice porridge is a staple at the Cantonese breakfast table. It's cheap, filling, and available wherever you go in Cantonese-speaking areas. (Dim sum is more of a weekend and special occasion treat.) And as many expats and visitors to Hong Kong and Guangzhou have discovered, congee is also a great hangover cure on Sunday mornings. I can't think of any other breakfast that is both as light and as filling.

Of course, sometimes the best congee (or jook, as it is called in Cantonese) is homemade. It's easy to whip up and endlessly adaptable. Chicken congee, pork congee, seafood congee, you name it. Most Cantonese home cooks use chicken stock as a base, but you can just as easily make a vegetarian version with good vegetable stock. Add carrots, broccoli, and some shiitake mushrooms for that nice umami flavor, and you're good to go.

In lieu of fried dough, I also sprinkle roasted peanuts on top for a nice crunchy texture.

Vegetarian Congee Adapted from The New York Times

Serves 6-8

1 cup short-grain rice 2 cups vegetable stock 6 to 8 cups water 5 or 6 dried shiitake mushrooms 1 3-inch piece of ginger, peeled and roughly chopped 1 large carrot, peeled and finely diced Salt to taste 1 medium head of broccoli, cut into little florets 1 tablespoon scallions, thinly sliced 1/2 cup roasted peanuts, chopped

Wash rice, and put it in a large pot with vegetable stock. Place over high heat until stock boils, then add about 4 cups water. Bring to a boil, and reduce heat to low. Simmer for about 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally and adding water as necessary (about 2 to 4 cups more.)

Soak 4 or 5 dried shiitake mushrooms in hot water until softened. Remove stems and thinly slice. After congee has been boiling for half an hour, add mushrooms to pot, along with ginger, carrots, and a generous pinch of salt. When the congee is almost done, add broccoli florets. Salt to taste. Serve hot in individual bowls and garnish with minced scallions and peanuts.

Recipe: Water Chestnut Cake with Ginger

Along with lucky red envelopes, I received a gift for Lunar New Year that I could use immediately in the kitchen: a package of water chestnut flour.

Water chestnut cake (ma tei gow in Cantonese) is another snack, along with turnip cake, that is eaten all year round but especially during Chinese New Year. It's also much easier to make. While the main ingredient, water chestnut flour, may not be a staple on Western grocery store shelves, it is readily available in large Chinatown markets. When I lived in Boston we had a few varieties to choose from. The best kind has a coarse pebbly texture, as opposed to finer dust.

I love how the translucency makes the cake look like marble. I also love tasting the crunchy chestnuts with the jelly texture of the steamed cake.

The recipe also allows for numerous variations. The one below adds a bit of fresh ginger juice to the traditional version, but you can always leave ginger out. I also made a variation using the same amount of almond milk instead of water. My mother used to be even more inventive, substituting with coconut milk, orange juice, or adding black sesame paste. Thinking of variations is half the fun.

Water Chestnut Cake with Ginger

250 g water chestnut flour
1000 mL water, room temperature
500 g dark brown sugar
2 to 3 whole water chestnuts, roughly chopped (or 1 can of water chestnuts, drained and roughly chopped)
1- to 2-inch piece ginger, peeled and grated

Squeeze the grated ginger through a sieve to strain out juice; set aside.

In a large bowl, mix 300 mL of water into chestnut flour, working in a little at a time. Make sure all the flour at the bottom of the bowl dissolves into the water.

In a large pot, bring the remaining 700 mL water to boil. Pour in brown sugar, and mix until dissolved. Remove from heat, and mix in about 1/4 of the chestnut flour liquid. (Don't pour all the flour liquid in at once, because too much heat will cook the flour on the spot.) Set the pot in a basin of cold water to cool, then remove and mix in ginger juice and the rest of the chestnut flour liquid. The mixture should have a thick and pasty texture.

Pour the mixture into a 10-inch round cake pan. (No need to grease the pan, since the cake will pop out easily after it cooks.) To steam: Place pan in a large steamer or wok. Bring 8 cups water to boil, cover, and steam for 20 to 25 minutes.

Check for doneness by sticking a toothpick in the cake; if the toothpick comes out clean, you can remove the cake from the heat. Place on a cooling rack or in a basin of cold water to allow the cake to set. When cooled (about 15 to 20 minutes), you can slice and serve immediately.

This cake can be stored in tupperware at room temp, in the fridge, or frozen. (Obviously the colder the storage temp the longer it keeps.)

To reheat, you can either pan-fry the same way as with turnip cake, or steam for 5 to 10 minutes to get the jellylike texture again.

Recipe: Turnip Cake (Law Bok Gow)

From a Chinese-American kid's perspective, Chinese New Year is a holiday as cool as, or even better than, Christmas. You get lots of red envelopes full of money, big boxes and tins of candy, and big meals for at least 3 to 5 days straight. You don't have to pretend to like any of the re-gifts or fruitcake you receive. And if your mother has free time, which she somehow always finds during the New Year, she'll whip up batches of snacks for you to eat and to give to relatives.

One of these snacks, eaten all year round but especially during the New Year, is turnip cake. It symbolizes prosperity and growing fortunes, but a kid's main concern is how good something tastes. (Even many years later, turnip cake is one of the first foods I associate with Chinese New Year.) Although this is a staple on dim sum menus, no restaurant turnip cake compares to the homemade version, which bares the aroma of just-cooked mushrooms and pork even days after it's made.

To make this recipe you'll need a firm white Chinese turnip about 10 to 12 inches long and 4 to 5 inches wide. Instead of grating the turnip like many recipes say, my mother slices it into thin strips to be cooked. This gives the cake a firmer texture that holds together better during pan-frying. And the Chinese never eat the whole cake at once; usually we eat a few pieces after the cake has just been steamed, then tightly wrap the rest in plastic and refrigerate. We then pan-fry the rest for breakfast or when friends and relatives come to visit.

Speaking of the New Year, I will be spending the next few days in Guangzhou, my birthplace. My family and I will have New Year's Eve dinnner (Tuun neen) with my uncle's family, and then dinner on New Year's day with my dad's best friend's family. The last time I spent New Year's in Guangzhou was 1988, so it will be interesting to see all the festivities, firecrackers, and the famous Flower Street. To everyone celebrating the Lunar New Year, 新年快乐!

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Other Cantonese recipes to try:

Sweet and Sour Pork

Vegetarian Congee

Wonton Noodle Soup, Hong Kong-Style

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Turnip Cakes (Law Bok Gow)

3 1/4 cups rice flour 8 dried shiitake mushrooms 2 ounces dried shrimp 6 ounces Chinese bacon (lop yok) or Chinese sausage 1 large Chinese white turnip, about 2 pounds 3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil 2 teaspoons Shaoxing rice cooking wine 2 teaspoons dark soy sauce 1 teaspoon salt

Special equipment: Mandolin, 10-inch cake pan, large wok (with lid) that is bigger than the cake pan

1. In a large heatproof bowl, combine the rice flour and 2 cups of water. Mix well until the mixture is smooth and velvety, and set aside.

2. In a small bowl, soak the shiitake mushrooms in about 1/2 cup of cold water for 10 to 15 minutes to soften. In a separate small bowl, do the same with the dried shrimp.

3. Meanwhile, bring water to boil in a small pot. Place the Chinese bacon in the pot and cook for 3 to 4 minutes to soften. Remove from heat and pat to dry. Finely chop and set aside.

4. Once the shiitakes are done soaking, remove from water, sqeeze out excess water, finely chop, and set aside. Remove shrimp from water, finely chop, and set aside.

5. Peel the turnip, and with a mandoline, slice into 2 cm thick slices. Then cut slices into strips about 2 cm thick. Set aside.

6. Heat 3 tablespoons of oil in a wok. Add shrimp and mushrooms and cook until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add the cooking wine and soy sauce and stir until the shrimp and mushrooms are well-coated. Add the Chinese bacon, cook for another 1 to 2 minutes, then remove from heat and set aside.

7. In the same wok, toss in the turnip strips and stir-fry for 2 to 3 minutes, adding a bit more cooking oil if necessary. Then pour in 1 cup water, cover the wok, and let the turnip steam for 10 to 15 minutes until just cooked.

8. Pour the hot turnip mixture into the bowl with the rice flour mixture and mix thoroughly, until the turnips are well-incorporated into the mixture. Add the bacon, shrimp, mushrooms, and salt. Stir until evenly distributed. Pour the resulting mixture into a round 10-inch cake pan and smooth out the top.

9. Steaming: Bring water to boil in a large wok big enough to fit the cake pan. Carefully fit the cake pan into the steamer, cover, reduce the heat to a simmer. Steam for 1 hour, or just until the turnip cake is set and is firm to the touch. Check the water level regularly and replenish, if necessary, with boiling water. Carefully remove the pan from the steamer and allow to cool on a rack for about 1 hour.

10. When cooled, run a knife along the edge of the cake to loosen sides. Invert to unmold and flip the cake right-side up onto a cutting board. Slice the cake into rectagles 1-inch thick. You can serve the turnip cake as-is and sliced, or wrap the cake in plastic and refrigerate until ready to stir-fry.

11. Optional stir-frying: Heat a medium to large skillet over medium heat. Add enough oil to barely cover the bottom and fry the cake in batches, about 3 to 5 minutes per side until golden brown. Serve immediately plain or with oyster sauce, soy sauce, or chilli sauce.