Snapshots from Asia: Jook


Photographs by Shimin Wong

Most of us think of comfort food as fat food: creamy risottos and pastas, hearty stews, buttery mashed potatoes, mayo sandwiches, hot chocolate, cheesecake, hot fudge sundaes. In Asia, there are a host of dishes people make a beeline for when they get off a plane, return from grueling military training, or when they've had a rotten day—dishes I affectionately call "a highway to a heart attack." (A straw poll will likely turn up "lard" and wok hei or "wok's breath—the essence imparted by a hot wok to food"—as determining factors in succor-level.)

One would imagine the ultimate comfort food to be riddled with saturated fat and swimming in carcinogens then. Interestingly, this granddaddy of comfort foods is also considered premier invalid food—the kind of food grandmothers, mothers, and hospitals dish out. Jook, better known as porridge or congee, is essentially a rice gruel given depth and "nutrition" with ingredients such as minced pork, fresh fish, century egg, dried seafood, nuts, and the like. To the average Chinese, this is the one dish we associate with nurturance—with all that is good and healing in the world. Because the most basic of versions would involve just rice cooked in plenty of water (about one part rice to 12 parts water would be just about right), a pinch of salt, and some pickled vegetables on the side, it's also known as "poor man's food," and has come to the rescue of many an impoverished grad student.


Most versions of jook (luxurious or otherwise—yes, there are abalone, shark's fin, and bird's nest versions, too) involve white rice. The version pictured here is brown, not because of a slurry of soy sauce but because Singapore has become increasingly health conscious over the years, and even hawkers are jumping on the bandwagon by offering "less salt, less oil, more fish and vegetables," and in this case, more dietary fiber. Brown rice congee is not as smooth as traditional jook, but it's certainly flavorful—enriched as it is by dried oysters and a sweet, earthy stock base of groundnuts.

Given our tropical climate, the 100 percent humidity, and the unrelenting heat of the sun, you may be perspiring just thinking about piping hot porridge on a piping hot day—who in his right mind would opt to eat something that's wafting steam in a crowded, un–air-conditioned hawker center? Well, there is the theory that drinking a hot beverage on a warm day will serve to cool you down more than downing a cold drink will (latent heat, my friends). The truth? There's a saying that translates to "if your heart is still and quiet, you'll cool down naturally." This is a phrase wizened elders like to send Zen kōanlike our way, and which never fails to drive us youngsters nuts. In actual fact, we just get used to it—the heat, I mean. And it helps that jook's comfort level (and deliciousness) can't be beat. After all, what kind of Serious Eater wimps out just because the mercury's rising?