It's officially cold season again, a time when stuffy heads and runny noses send us searching for solace in the soothing comfort foods we grew up with -- usually something warm, starchy and easy to digest. For me that was usually chicken noodle soup, known by some as the Jewish penicillin, but for a great number of other cultures, that cure-all is rice porridge, often called congee, a humble dish popular in almost all Asian culinary circles.
Leftover rice is boiled with large quantities of water until it's individual grains collapse, forming a kind of thin gruel not dissimilar to Cream of Wheat. It's pretty bland, but that's probably the point -- the best part comes in dressing it up with whatever toppings you could desire.
Roll through any of the restaurants in Chinatown, and you'll spy a steaming bowl of congee on the menu, rarely costing more than a few dollars. Phoenix Inn and Zen Mei both serve great porridge, stocked with salty preserved eggs, dried pork floss and shaved green onion. Make sure to order a crispy Chinese donut on the side, called youtiao, for dipping.
Further east, you'll find porridge swimming with fat pork meatballs at Har Lam Kee in Monterey Park, or the Taiwanese porridge at Lu's Garden, which comes with a wedge of boiled sweet potato and is topped with selections chosen from behind a long deli case -- imagine a frozen yogurt topping bar stocked with things like pickled mustard greens, braised eggplant and sweet pork belly.
Ruen Pair, the venerable spot in Thai Town you head to when just about everything else is closed, has great porridge too -- here's it's called rice soup, orchok. Ideally you order it alongside the spicy combination salad, a mixture of preserved cabbage, salted egg, lap cheong, julienned ginger, dried shrimp, red onions, scallions and a lashing of Thai chile. Perfect for clearing the sinuses.
Lately though I've been especially smitten with the Korean juk at Healthy Zone Jook Hyang, a restaurant whose title might you lead you to believe this is a weight-loss center rather than a place to order food.
There is juk with huge pieces for fresh abalone, juk made with pumpkin, or pine nuts, or juicy bits of chicken stuffed with jujubes and ginseng. There is also the black sesame variety, which resembles a pot of molten asphalt and has a slight butteriness from the addition of black sesame paste. You season it gently with some delicate mul kimchi and some jangojorim, rough nubs of beef boiled in soy sauce.
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Korean juk might generally be more pricey than other porridge spots in town, but the restorative proprieties it promises might warrant the cost. My meal at Healthy Zone began with a light green salad, then a dish of house-made organic tofu, and ended with a cup of sujungwa, a fruity punch made from persimmons and cinnamon, and then a little soda fountain glass filled with a surprisingly good strawberry-banana smoothie. It's like a spa day for your stomach.
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