KUALA LUMPUR, March 18 – Thunderstorms make me want to curl up in bed and imagine a trouble-free childhood occupied only with reading and rereading my favourite books.
That is, till it’s time for lunch.
The sort that calls to you on a rainy day – a big bowl of smooth congee with hidden gems of savoury meatballs and, if I was a good boy, the occasional nugget of golden egg yolk.
Now that I am an adult and must make my own congee, I can afford to play with the ingredients a little. Why only one type of meat when I can have two – maybe mix prawns with chicken – in my meatballs?
As curious Totto-chan learned in Tetsuko Kuroyanagi’s The Little Girl at the Window, one ought to have “something from the ocean and something from the hills” in every meal. My prawn-and-chicken meatballs will satisfy little Totto-chan’s teacher, surely?
And why just a smidgen of egg when I can take my Japanese inspiration further with a topping of onsen eggs. Known as onsen tamago in Japanese (literally “hot spring egg”), these soft-boiled eggs have milky whites and startlingly vibrant yolks. What a treat!
When you make congee, aromatics such as spring onion and ginger are must-haves.
Requisite garnishes include sticks of julienned ginger and circles of chopped spring onion, as well as a restrained drizzle of aromatic sesame oil. A dusting of ground white pepper, perhaps less restrained (in my case, at least).
These little touches help balance the meatiness of the congee (or brininess, if you take into consideration the dried scallops and minced prawns giving strong representation to the ocean).
Each spoonful of congee ought to be creamy, clean and flavourful. Nothing muddy or confused about this comfort food. Nostalgia should taste dreamy.
Even served plain, the congee is hearty and delicious on its own.
The final flourish of ‘onsen’ eggs elevates the congee.
Even served plain, the congee is hearty and delicious on its own. Yet the final flourish of onsen eggs elevates the congee into something simply luxurious.
CONGEE WITH MEATBALLS AND ONSEN EGGS
The base of my congee is quite simple and straightforward: dried scallops and rice. The former, also known as gōnbui in Cantonese, produces a flavourful stock full of umami without the hassle of constantly skimming the scum that would rise to the surface if one uses chicken bones or pork ribs.
You may use frozen cooked white rice to speed up the congee cooking process.
Where the rice is concerned, my little cheat here is to use leftover cooked rice that has been frozen rather than cooking the congee from scratch with uncooked grains.
Honestly, I find that the grains of frozen cooked rice tend to dissolve faster in the stock, which helps us achieve the creamy consistency we want for our congee.
Prawns and chicken meat can be minced together to make the meatballs.
You can use pre-made meatballs here but it’s not that much more work to make these fresh as the congee cooks. Just make sure the meat – here I have used a mix of prawns and chicken – is fresh and minced finely so that they incorporate better with the binding ingredients (cornstarch in particular).
Some recipes might add eggs to the meatball mince but I find that unnecessary. Plus eggs are already making an appearance with the onsen eggs, another topping that can be prepared whilst the congee is cooking.
So whilst this recipe is a three-step process, each step runs almost in parallel with each other so the time taken is really just the time needed for the congee to finish cooking!
1 piece dried scallop, rehydrated
2½ litres water
250g cooked white rice, frozen
4 organic eggs, room temperature
100g prawns, minced
100g chicken meat, minced
1 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 teaspoons cornstarch (mixed with a little water to create a slurry)
Salt to taste
1 piece ginger, julienned
1 stalk spring onion, finely chopped
Sesame oil and ground white pepper, to finish
Fill a large pot with water. Shred the rehydrated dried scallops into the pot by hand. Add the frozen cooked white rice and ginger to the pot. Bring it to a boil.
Once it has reached a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer once more and continue cooking for another 20 minutes till the congee reaches your desired consistency.
Whilst the congee is cooking, you can prepare the eggs and meat.
To make the onsen eggs, first bring a pot of water to boil. After the water has boiled, set the pot aside for 5 minutes. Now place the eggs into the pot of water. Allow to sit for 20 minutes before removing from the water.
Combine the minced prawn and chicken meat in a mixing bowl. Add the white pepper, soy sauce, sesame oil and cornstarch slurry. Mix again until you obtain a smooth paste. Cover the bowl with cling film and set aside in the fridge.
Once the congee is ready, use a spoon to scoop out coarsely shaped meatballs and drop these directly into the pot. These won’t take long to cook in the congee, just a few minutes.
When the meatballs are fully cooked, taste the congee and adjust the seasoning with a little salt if necessary. Turn off the heat and ladle into bowls.
Crack the onsen eggs directly into each bowl of congee, about 1-2 eggs per bowl depending on individual preference.
Garnish with the ginger and spring onion. Drizzle some sesame oil on top and a little more white pepper if desired. Serve immediately.
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