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A Jook That Never Grows Old
No food better exemplifies the variety and versatility of Chinese cooking than jook. The list of its benefits and uses reads like advert copy for 19th century patent medicine: It's breakfast! It's lunch! It's dinner! A late-night snack! It's an antacid! It's medicine! It's diet fare, gourmet fare, thick, thin, hot, cold, eat anywhere fare. Even its name is versatile: while this rice porridge dish of a thousand faces is better known to the world as congee, the Cantonese prefer to call it jook. And few dishes in the culinary realm are as adaptable to individual needs and tastes as jook.

The essential element of any good jook is the punchline?- but seriously, like a Chinese soup, jook starts out with a stock-like base from which the countless number of combinations and variations originate. Basic jook, or white rice porridge (bok jook), is a simple rice-water mixture. It's covered and slow-simmered for several hours until the rice dissolves and the liquid thickens.

But even the methods of cooking basic jook can vary significantly. Some chefs chose to substitute some or all of the water with liquid from what's called a "high class soup" (seung tong), made from pork bones, fish, dried oysters and seasonings. The jook's thickness also varies based on the proportion of rice to water as well as the cooking time. Basic jook in Guangzhou tends to be thicker because it cooks longer. In contrast, jook from the Chao Zhou area in Guangdong province typically isn't boiled as long, so the porridge is thinner, the rice grains more intact.

True to jook's nature and the eating habits in Guangzhou, anything and everything can be added to basic jook. Usually a single type of meat is thrown in, along with some local vegetables such as cabbage or sai yeung choy. While beef is the most common meat of choice, everything from pork and chicken to eel and abalone makes an occasional appearance. However, it's usually one or the other instead of all of the above. When the ingredient list grows too lengthy, it becomes difficult to distinguish one flavour from the other. Regardless the choice, the meat is sliced thinly so it will cook quickly once the basic jook is brought to a fast boil. A few minutes of a rolling boil, and voila, the jook is served.

Because jook is a delicately flavoured dish - not too salty, not too heavy - spices are kept to a minimum. Most chefs will add ginger, salt, scallions, perhaps some pickled vegetables or mussel adductor muscle (gon go yue chuee). As for side dishes, the most popular jook sidekick is fried pieces of dough (you jah gwei).

With so many different ways to prepare, serve and eat jook, it's no wonder that it enjoys a universal popularity among not just the people in Guangzhou but throughout the world. The infinite number of possibilities and combinations means that there's never a wrong way to eat jook - and that chefs and diners alike can reinvent the dish with each new serving.

Jook can be found anywhere in Guangzhou where morning tea is served. Most restaurants have several varieties of jook available. Among Guangzhou's jook joints are Liuhua Jook City at Ming Hong Ting, Meng Yuan, Liu Hua Park (8668 0108, www.arloy.com) and the Jia Ri Jook City at Ground Floor, 177 Qing Long Fang, Huan Shi Dong Lu (8778 3030).

(Southcn.com December 25, 2002)

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