The Trigger: Congee Restaurant
December 2017. In a hostel room in Seoul, Zoe was flipping through pages of her itinerary. She was rehearsing in her head where to go and what to eat first. Winter in Seoul is never pleasant to people from the south, as the coldest days in Hong Kong never fall below 0°C (32°F). The capital of South Korea had been around -5°C (23°F) on average when we visited. The first thing I wanted to eat had to be something steaming hot: beef bone broth, eel or pork barbecue, dumplings…
“Let’s go eat congee,” Zoe said, “I’ve wanted to go to this congee place for so long.” She showed me some pictures on the Internet: the congee bowl was huge, and toppings were carefully laid out on the congee. Each bowl comes with appetisers like kimchi. All were Instagrammable. Photogenic. Zoe was excited.
I looked at the pictures, glassy-eyed. My heart sank, and my stomach tightened. Why would congee be a tourists’ favourite? My mind raced, trying to convince myself that I should be open to every Korean food. I was prepared for eating raw, moving squid tentacles, heavily marinated minced beef, crabs and shrimps. But I felt really reluctant to have congee. Then again, I also didn’t want to disappoint Zoe.
Congee is for the sick. Congee tastes bad. Congee makes me feel sick. These words repeated in my head. I was in defense-mode. I tried my best to squeeze a smile.
Zoe saw my face and read my mind. She knew the backstory about my childhood nightmare: an everlasting joke among aunts and uncles, a harmless mockery of my Mom’s “delicacy”. Mom’s cooking exemplified the maxim: “caring doesn’t mean pleasing”.
“Let’s see; perhaps you can have something else there,” she reassured me. “Or. Maybe you’ll change your mind.”
Effective Medicine Tastes Bitter
Mom’s kitchen didn’t always shine. It did only on good days. Bad days were a totally different aura. The dark kitchen had a kind of green goblin gloomy glow when Mom cooked.
Bad days happened when she was unhappy. Mostly unhappy because I got sick often when I was small – she was never tired of taking care of me, but…
Drink more water. Massage your nose. Stop blinking your eyes so hard. Sleep now. Hold your coughs. They are good for you.
As a kid listening to these mantras was a dread. Yet I had no choice but to follow.
The same went for what to eat. As pills were considered “too intrusive”, Mom could be very creative with “food therapy”. That’s based on a traditional Chinese belief, “effective medicine tastes bitter” (良藥苦口). What’s good for health won’t be pleasant. Usually. Thanks to this theory, whatever was served on the table “for the sake of my well-being”, I had to finish. No matter how it tasted.
I got sick so often that our day-to-day fare was often “bitter”. On most days, I dreaded to think what Mom would cook. But I had to stay grateful and not complain, because it was my fault I got sick, and she had to take care of me. Steak, pasta or wingettes were not frequent. On ordinary days, I had sandwiches with broiled ham or gooey oatmeal for breakfast. I might also be the youngest person on the Earth to have protein shakes in the morning. Simple dinners meant we had broiled cabbage, bitter gourd, and unmarinated sauteed pork chops.
Worse days brought homemade rice congee (“jook” 粥 in Cantonese).
Congee: Love from Mom, Goo from a Cauldron
I just can’t get rid of the sickly, sticky, slimy feeling whenever congee passes my thoughts. It seems to be always associated with illness in my childhood.
Jook varies across Asia. In Hong Kong, the texture of jook is similar to oatmeal porridge, either served plain (“white congee”) or with a wide range of toppings, from minced or shredded meat or fish to century eggs (皮蛋, “leathery eggs”), pig’s blood curd (豬紅, “pig red”) or organ-meat. It is considered a kind of comfort food on colder days, available at restaurants and outdoor food stalls.
Rice congee isn’t really evil. I don’t hate it. Sometimes I order rice congee with chow mein or fried dough when I eat out. I even have plain congee if I want a quick detox. There is a famous place in Hong Kong whose specialty is chicken congee served in a porcelain pot. I don’t hate it. But it’s not really my thing. Also, the restaurant or food stall versions aren’t good for a detox because they are too salty or have too many toppings… and too much MSG.
Hot Qi and Detox
Speaking of “detox”, one view from traditional Chinese medicine has to do with “lowering the temperature” of your qi (氣, literally “gas”). Qi is a kind of force running through your body. When you are energised, you have power (liqi, 力氣, “powerful force”); when you can project your voice loudly, you have a strong centre qi (zhongqi, 中氣).
(Interestingly, when you’re generous and kind, you have big qi (daqi, 大氣). The opposite, small qi (小氣), means you’re mean.)
As Chinese philosophy emphasises harmony for achieving “the mean”, anything that upsets the balance creates various kinds of health problems. Your qi is hot when you overly consume food that causes the “temperature” to accumulate in the body. What bring heat to the qi includes a range of food such as lamb chops, red wine, lychees, peanuts, spicy or fried food. In this case, you need to avoid eating those foods (for a while), or eat something that lowers the temperature of the qi. In Chinese we call it “clearing hot qi”.
There are actually pleasant food choices for clearing hot qi, such as green tea, watermelon, chrysanthemum and beer (surprise!). But I was too young to drink tea or alcohol, and watermelon was less accessible then. What was left were less pleasant foods to choose from.
Anyway, I was NEVER allowed to choose.
From a kid’s point of view, what’s good for clearing hot qi was never pleasant to me. Repeat: effective medicine tastes bitter. Using “bitter” to describe jook is misleading. Jook doesn’t taste or smell bad in its own right. But it’s terrible when it isn’t done right.
Mom didn’t do it right at home. I have these triggering mental images of Mom flipping through strange recipes and stirring the congee in a big pot. I would look on, lying in my sickbed. Then I would get up and crawl to the dining table. The jook was served hot, and the steam coming out of the congee spelt out: “It’s for your good” in ghost-letters. When I knew I had to finish the whole pot, I bowed my head, my eyes lost focus, my brain froze.
“Come on,” urged Mom. “it clears your hot qi and takes your temperature away.”
Medicine is Good, but It’s NOT Food
I’m not sure how Mom’s congee was supposed to be therapeutic. It seemed to make me feel worse. I just thought, Perhaps she doesn’t care. Perhaps she wishes it works so she doesn’t have to take me to the clinic and waste money. She just doesn’t want to bother.
I sometimes wondered, how far could she go? What other funny things might she put in the congee?
If my memory serves me well, I remember begging Mom just to prepare plain congee. I wasn’t sure if she did it on purpose, but damn… her creativity was beyond imagination.
Congee with dried sweetened date and fruit peel. It tasted faintly sweet, but I never liked congee to be sweet. Sweet and congee didn’t mix in my mind. When I felt dreadful and couldn’t think straight, the taste was so confusing that it made me feel even more nauseous.
Worse still, the date peel wouldn’t melt or go soft; it would break down into coarse brown threads. Like worms in the congee. When I peered down my bowl, the light brown colour seemed to press really close towards my face. I felt like I was eating from a toilet bowl.
Congee with dried daylily (金針，literal translation: “golden needles”). Daylily is a healthy herb, but it tastes awfully sour. It smells and tastes rancid, and its mustard-yellow colour gradually spreads over the congee. It looked as if I was to drink puke I had just thrown up.
Both versions were the worst when the softened rice grains soaked up all the water. The congee would congeal in the bowl. It stuck on your palate, and took time to dilute with your saliva. This sounds quite overwhelming: it is already very graphic just to imagine. Think about a ten-year-old kid having to put something yellowish or brownish into his mouth when he was sick.
I’ll stop here. It’s just too much.
Where did she Get her Ideas?
I searched through the Internet to look for the recipes for these haunting recipes, but all I found was that they were uniquely Mom’s. A tailor-made meal for her sick kid. Something that I never cherished or even appreciated.
“Trust me. It does cure,” asserted Mom when I asked her about this recently. I pressed further.
“Check that article on the web. Proven by the herbalist,” she knew I wasn’t sold.
I wasn’t. I’m not, and I won’t be. I guess that is me being rebellious. Having the capability to be skeptical. Having the freedom to choose whatever I want to eat. And having the balls to take on the hot qi that comes from having too much junk food.
Hail fried chicken. Hail chips and fries. Hail soda!
Congee is for the sick. Congee tastes bad. Congee makes me feel sick. To the hell with congee.
The Long-Running Family Jook
Congee also hurts my pride, because it made me lose face in front of my family.
I didn’t get much sympathy for suffering from having Mom’s congee. Even to this day, as I’ve reached an age where I can look to the past with nostalgia, they still bring this up to tease me. My aunts and uncles would make fun of me whenever I asked for a soda or chips. “Hey, I don’t want your Mom to blame me for giving you snacks. You’d better watch out, or you’ll have Mom’s congee again.”
I still flush when they laugh at me as I gain a few pounds. “Maybe go ask your mom to help you detox with daylily congee?”
I must have been in great distress when I told my aunties and uncles about Mom’s creativity. And they then keep bringing it up during family gatherings. A perennial joke at the dinner table. Interestingly, my cousins never had these embarrassing memories. Ah yes, they are in families practising laissez-faire parenting. I even had to sneakily ask them for snacks at school, and I got sniffed out by Mom.
Come to think of it, I once heard that there’s a kind of care called “that’s for your good”. Parents’ wishful thinking that their decisions are the best for their children. I just do this to protect you.
True, I became healthier under Mom’s protective umbrella. But it took me some time to figure things out myself. What choices to make for my own good, and what consequences to bear when I make bad calls.
Whatever. I choose not to have congee unless I want it. On the days I’m celebrating. On my good days.
Epilogue: Bad Dreams in the Past, Comfort in the Present
December 2017. The month I successfully defended my PhD thesis. We had planned this Seoul trip months before to celebrate the end of my four-year battle.
At the congee place, I listened to Zoe’s recommendation, and picked the one with squid and kimchi. I have always loved kimchi and squid, so I thought they might go well with congee…
The egg-yolk colour congee was visually more pleasing. It was served with ban-chan (side-dishes), just like what we had seen on the web. The bowl was steamy, and the steam spelled this time mysterious Korean characters I couldn’t decipher.
It takes a leap of faith to believe things will be okay.
My mood lit up as the steam arrived at my nostrils. It smelled fresh with the seaweed and sesame sprinkled on the congee. I had a spoonful with a piece of kimchi. The texture was more solid, as the rice grains didn’t soften completely.
The congee looked, smelled and tasted way more amiable this time. I looked so relieved that Zoe laughed, “What now? Aren’t you just being extra and whiny?”
Perhaps, but everyone has different coping mechanisms for bad childhood memories. Yeah, it takes some pain to heal – effective medicine tastes bitter.
If bad memories are like hot qi, holding onto them is like eating awful congee every day.
Letting them go is a choice: I can now choose not to eat awful congee; I have delicious congee of my choice, and from my kitchen, and my kitchen radiates golden rays.