Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Soul Food

Many years ago, at a wine tasting dinner, a group of foodie friends and I were asked by Simon Berry of Berry Bros. & Rudd to name the scents we detected from each of the wines we were sampling that evening. Some, particularly Asians, were more sensitive towards the scent of wood, tobacco, etc. Others, notably the occidentals, were better at picking cherry, berries and floral notes.

An Asian gourmand there conceded that his childhood food memories were of mushrooms, soya and all food unami (the fifth taste beside sweet, sour, savoury and bitter) while his then French wife associated her early memories with jams and stone fruits. Since we develop our tastes in food from infancy differently, it is perfectly logical that comfort food means different food to different people.

I count cherry clafoutis as my number one comfort food, closely followed by anything with blueberries, hazelnuts or almonds. On the savoury side, nothing beats a simple plate of linguine drizzled with olive oil, then topped with generous shavings of Sardinian bottarga (dried mullet roe). However, there is always a fond place in my stomach for Shanghaiese crabs, fresh soya milk served hot in a bowl, and pan fried Northern Chinese dumplings (what the Americans like to call potstickers).

I have just made a litre or so of soya milk this afternoon. I used no recipe because I don't have one; everything was done by feel and memory of a certain consistency. I simply put a handful of soaked beans in my liquidiser with some water and watched the beans transformed into a creamy runny pulp at the touch of a button. I repeated the process until I used up a whole bowl of swelled up soya.

The task was admittedly easier since my liquidiser comes with an unusual sieving mechanism (also great for juicing pomegranates). But I wanted my nursery drink to be extra smooth, just like in those Shanghaiese bistros which serve bowls of piping hot soya milk with steamed buns or salty sweet sticky rice rolls at breakfast time. So, I pour the work in progress through a napkin to get rid of the last bits of interfering solid (I haven't gone as far as keeping muslin at home; that, I think is too much). I then cooked the cream colour liquid, an essential step, to get rid of the raw grassy taste. When it was about to boil, I added a couple spoonfuls of organic sugar. The smell and taste of my childhood filled my kitchen in Buenos Aires at once.

The pulp which I had just separated from the liquid is not going to waste. No, no, it will be a wonderful addition to a pot of congee (rice porridge) with dried shitake mushrooms, a pinch of conpoy (dried scallops) and chicken.

To make this congee, best for wintry nights or when one is feeling particularly fragile, I wash some uncooked rice with water and then rub it with some rough sea salt. After adding more water, about 6:1, and the soya pulp, I let it boil away on a low flame. Meanwhile, I soak some dried shitake mushrooms and one dried conpoy. When they have softened, I cut the mushrooms and shred the conpoy. Then I add them to the slowly bubbling congee. After that, I marinade some chicken pieces with Shaoxing wine, sesame oil, a pinch of corn flour, salt and sugar.

When the rice is well cooked (it'll take a while and each grain should open up like a flower), I turn up the heat to bring the congee to boil. If the congee is too thick, add more water and then bring it to boil. Now, I add the chicken pieces. Depending on how much chicken, I sometimes turn off the heat immediately. Other times, I would bring it back to boil then turn off the heat. The chicken pieces are to be cooked in the residual heat for about 20min. This is the trick to succulent chicken, especially breast meat.

Guillermo is now used to my waste not want not philosophy in the kitchen; he is no longer surprised when I soak a chicken in hot stock flavoured with leftover celery leaves, or stalks of parsley or coriander, whichever I happen to find in the fridge. My mother has taught me this immersion method of cooking chicken and I have not looked back since.
For me, soya milk and rice porridge are not only nursery food then or comfort food now but the sum of a life time of memories.

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home