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Flash in the Pan

Cháo-ing down

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Nearly every Asian language includes a word for a certain rice-based gruel found virtually anywhere rice is grown. The dish often goes by congee, its Chinese name, and many rice cookers even have a "porridge" or congee setting.

This humble bowl of steaming goodness can make for a delicious meal in its own right, but at the same time it is a blank slate that's able to go in almost any culinary direction. It is also medicine, craved during times of sickness, hangover, or other malaise by those who have grown up with it. Like Mom's chicken soup, congee is a warm, rejuvenating embrace. As a culinary attraction, it's versatile, energizing and so consistently delicious that it's basically foolproof.

Today, carbohydrates are treated with suspicion, having been outed as stealth saboteurs to one's Body Mass Index. But extended cooking makes the nutrients, including sugars, more accessible and easy to digest. And, paradoxically, even though it's made mostly of rice, when you eat a lot of congee you nonetheless are not eating that much rice.

As they simmer into starchy disembodiment, a handful of rice grains somehow grow into enough food for a family. It's quite something to behold. Andrea Nguyen, cookbook author and authority on Vietnamese cuisine, has a recipe for Vietnamese cháo that makes a point of using less than a cup of rice to feed "Biblical proportions" of people. The recipe can be found in Nguyen's cookbook, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen: Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavors.

In addition to that handful of rice, this recipe requires no more than ginger, scallion and water—or better yet, stock. Nguyen uses it as a base for several variations of cháo, including chicken, beef and fish.

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Andrea Nguyen's cháo

(paraphrased for space)

Ingredients

3/4 cup rice

1-inch cube of ginger, cut into slabs

3 green onions, just the white part, with roots and greens removed

2 1/2 quarts chicken stock

Procedure

Put the rice in a 4-quart pot. Fill the pot with water and swash the rice around with your fingers. When the rice settles, pour off the water. Repeat twice.

Add the stock, ginger and green onion to the pot. Bring to a boil over high heat, then partially cover and reduce to a vigorous simmer for five minutes, during which time the rice "... should bounce in the bubbling water without the water boiling over the pan sides."

Stir, to ensure none of the rice has stuck to the bottom, and reduce to a gentle simmer, covered, for about an hour, "... or until the rice grains have bloomed and curled, releasing their starches to thicken the soup and turn it creamy white."

Remove the ginger. Eat the green onion. Add salt, if necessary.

Now that you have your cháo, it is almost time to chow down.

The general drill with serving the many variations of cháo is to arrange various uncooked proteins and other goodies in the bottom of a bowl. Meanwhile, some cháo simmers in a saucepan (with some added water, if necessary, to thin it). The hot gruel is ladled in, and the bowl is topped with herbs, like cilantro or chopped onion greens, and perhaps a sauce.

The cháo needs to be hot enough, and the portion large enough, to properly cook the proteins, which could be marinated strips of meat or fish, a few raw, peeled shrimp or simply a raw chicken egg. Cháo can also be added to proteins that are being cooked, such as a sizzling pan of chicken. I recently sliced some high-end Italian meatballs into my cháo and let it simmer before serving it on a bowl of raw scallops, and I would eat that bowl again in a heartbeat. I've also added veggies, like slices of baby zucchini, to the cháo as it reheats.

Lately, I've been adding chopped garlic scapes to the bottom of the bowl to let them cook with the proteins. Nguyen's recipe for beef cháo calls for shredded ginger in the bowl bottom along with the beef, and I've taken to adding a pinch of shredded ginger to the top of nearly every bowl, the sharpness and heat being such a great match to the warm, dimly gingery porridge.

And while shopping, I've taken to evaluating potential purchases in terms of what they might do for my cháo. Duck meat, organ meat, bacon, tofu...the list is endless. In the north of Vietnam, it's common for people to slice Chinese donuts atop their cháo. Once you start putting donuts on things, that's a clear indication that anything goes.

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