Chicken Congee for a Hurting Heart

Too many people of note have passed away in the last month.

Terry Pratchett finally met DEATH and, hopefully, Binky.

Lee Kuan Yew is finally, hopefully, reunited with his wife, Kwa Geok Choo.

Pak Mie is, hopefully, by the Rainbow Bridge, being greeted by the furry friends that he saved and looked after while they were here.

Closer to home, my uncle boarded the bus as well, leaving a wife, three children, assorted grandchildren and four siblings, one of whom was my mother.

While Pratchett, Harry Lee and Pak Mie made an impact on me, it was the passing of my uncle that brought home the grief the living feel, when I saw my mother crumble and weep when I had to break the news to her. I thought she would recover over the next few days but I was wrong. She took his death badly and did not eat or talk for days after his funeral.

Dad and I bought food – mum did all the cooking at home – but still, she did not eat. In my worry, I took to cooking for her, hoping to tempt her with food so that she would at least have some sustenance. Or at least, if nothing else, try what I had cooked up.

Finally, little by little, she began eating. But stomachs shrink and gastritis sets in when one doesn’t eat for days. So I made her chicken congee, hoping that this would tempt her to eat. Not just any chicken congee, but with one enough flavour that, I hoped, would awaken an appetite and soothe a hurting heart.

(Most of us would call this porridge, because to us, porridge is made from rice, but if I call it porridge, bananas and other non-Asians might think its oats or some other grains, hence my use of the word Congee. But congee or porridge, it is comfort food, and that was what I felt mum needed.)

The ingredients for Chicken Congee for a convalescent 

The ingredients: garlic, shallots, ginger, minced chicken (seasoned and marinated) and spring onions for garnishing
  • Two to three shallots
  • Two cloves of garlic a thumb-length of old ginger
  • A cup and a half of rice
  • About 150gms of minced chicken
  • A couple of sprigs of spring onion or chives, depending on what’s at hand
  • Cooking oil
  • A teaspoonful of sesame seed oil
  • Light soy sauce
  • Salt
  • Pepper

Step One: Prep (About 15 minutes) 

  • Marinate the minced chicken in a teaspoonful of sesame seed oil, light soy sauce, a few pinches of pepper and a pinch of salt for about 15 minutes
  • While the chicken is marinating, wash the rice
  • Peel and finely chop the shallots and garlic
  • Peel, slice and julienne the ginger (tip: it’s easier to scrape off the skin with a spoon. Wash the skin off occasionally in running water and peel until ginger is relatively clean)
  • Cut of the ends and tips of the spring onion and cut into about 5mm lengths
Finely chop the garlic and shallots, wash the rice
Peel and julienne the ginger, which will be used as part of the saute trio as well as garnishing

Step Two: Cooking (about half an hour to 45 minutes)

  • Heat about two to three tablespoons of oil in a pot
  • Once oil is heated, toss in the chopped garlic, shallots and half the julienned ginger
  • Toss in half the minced chicken and saute with the shallots, garlic and ginger
  • Saute until fragrant and the garlic and shallots are translucent
  • Stir in the rice until it is coated in the oil
  • Add four and a half cups of water – it should be about three parts water to one part rice
  • Add the rest of the minced chicken in little balls or pinches
  • Let it boil and then let it simmer for about half an hour; but check to see that the rice is not drying up
  • Once cooked, serve in a pretty bowl and garnish with the ginger strips and spring onion
Stir in the rice when the saute ingredients are translucent
The finished product – flavourful chicken congee garnished with ginger and spring onion

Mum had a small bowl. She liked the garnish of ginger – said it added spice. Of course, she had to make a comment on the unevenness of my julienning. But then again, I was just glad that she finally began eating something.


My mother, my anchor

Mum’s not been well lately. For a while she was recovering, but with the recent passing of her youngest brother, her health got worse and she slipped into a depression that I’ve never seen before. They were close, but it was probably harder on her because not only are there now four out of 10 siblings left, but they – my mother and my uncle – were close. They spoke every other day, even though they didn’t see each other that often.

I couldn’t understand it at first; people pass on, unexpected or not, the living grieve for a while and then get on with their lives.

But seeing my mother take to her bed, not eat, not talk, not move unless necessary got me first worried then anxious and then panicky. I began focusing all my energy and attention on getting her well, tossing most other activities by the wayside. Seeing her decline made me realise that I was not ready to lose her. I wasn’t mentally and emotionally equipped for it.

Mother and I didn’t start out having a good relationship. Growing up, we were almost always at odds with each other. I was an angry teenager, she was an almost typical controlling, domineering mother, brought up in the nyonya tradition of what a woman should be – quiet, well-mannered, well-trained in the kitchen, a woman who should be a compliment to a husband and a matriarch to her new family. I can’t even begin to enumerate the battles we used to have; some loud and angry, but mostly quiet and cold.

Our relationship only started improving after I moved out in my late 20s, something that is Just, Not. Done. by any female in a good Peranakan family. A woman does not move out of the family house unless it is to her husband’s house. Even then, she would try to get me married off, mentioning “that nice boy” that some wattle-chinned flappy-armed old matchmaker scraped up from only the gods knew where, and trying to persuade me to “meet only”, “no harm getting to know new people”.

Thinking back, much of my rebellion began in the kitchen, where a good nyonya girl was expected to learn not just the family recipes but also other kitchen skills, including knowledge of spices and good knife skills. I remember being in the kitchen with her and my maternal grandmother where she would castigate me for sloppy knife work.

Slicing and julienning vegetables were an endurance test, with her looking over my shoulder, chastising me for being so “cho lor*”, commenting on how kasar** and chunky my vegetables were.

The most painful dish for me to help prepare was always, hands down, jiu hu char, stir fried shredded cuttlefish with vegetables, a quintessential Penang dish. While the main ingredient of the dish is actually the lowly turnip, not having dried shredded cuttlefish in the dish is just unacceptable.

Ironically, it was only after I moved out and started cooking for myself and my housemates that my knife skills started improving, Even now, however, I slip up. I don’t practice enough. But, unbeknownst to mother, I have been practising the jiu hu char recipe.

The Ingredients for jiu hu char

The prepped ingredients
The star of the show – dried cuttlefish
  • Two medium sized turnips also known in Hokkien as bangkuang, about 500gm – 600gms
  • Two medium carrots
  • About 250gms of long beans
  • Four to five mid-sized shallots
  • Half a bulb of garlic
  • About 150gms of pork belly
  • About 70gms of small prawns
  • Five to six dried shiitake mushrooms
  • Five to six pieces of small dried cuttlefish
  • Handful of chopped coriander for garnishing
  • A few sprigs of spring onions, to be diced for garnishing
  • Light soy sauce
  • Dark soy sauce
  • Pepper
  • Sugar
  • Salt
  • Oil

Step One: Prep

  • Soak the dried mushrooms in water. Reserve the stock for later. Mushroom stock is a great flavour agent, giving your food a more umami mouthfeel. Once the mushrooms are soft, slice them thinly.
  • Soak the dried cuttlefish for a few minutes, then julienne or shred them.
  • Slice and julienne all the vegetables. Of course, with all the latest technology, we can use the food processor now, but the old school methods are still the best for this. i find that using a food processor makes the vegetables a bit soggier, while julienning by hand ensures better crispness.
  • Boil the pork belly with a couple of crushed garlic cloves; it helps to get rid of any residual “porky” smell. Also makes it easier to slice the pork thinly, once its cooked. But if you forget that step or have no issues with smell, just slice the pork belly thinly.
  • Chop the shallots and remaining garlic cloves finely.
  • Depending on how many pairs of hands there are in the kitchen and whether you’re using a food processor or julienning, prep can take anywhere from 20 to 90 minutes.

Step Two: Cooking 

  • Heat oil in in wok. About one third of a cup should do, but you can add more if you want. I prefer the vegetables less oily and slightly dry as it holds its shape better.
  • Add chopped garlic and shallots and fry until translucent.
  • Add the shredded cuttlefish. Fry on low fire until aromatic.
  • Add the pork, fry for a minute or two more.
  • Add the julienned turnip, carrots and green beans.
  • Stir fry until the vegetables are slightly soft.
  • Add the mushrooms, together with half the mushroom stock. Stir it around some more.
  • Taste.
  • Keep stirring until the liquid has dried somewhat.
  • Add about a teaspoonful of light soy sauce, a sprinkle of salt and pepper (about half a teaspoon should do) and the rest of the mushroom stock and stir the vegetables thoroughly.
  • Cover the wok with a lid for about five minutes.
  • By the time you get back to it, the vegetables should be fairly soft.
  • Taste.
  • Add the prawns and a little of the pork stock, if you boiled the pork, to moisten the vegetables. Sprinkle about a teaspoon of sugar. Stir. Some people leave off the prawns but I find that they add natural sweetness to the dish and give it better mouthfeel than plain sugar.
  • Mix a teaspoon of dark soy sauce, equal amount of light soy sauce, if you think the dish needs more salt, and about a quarter of a cup of water.
  • Add to vegetables.
  • Stir fry until prawns are cooked. By this time, the vegetables should be thoroughly cooked and soft yet retain a slight crunchiness. There should also be very little liquid left. The shredded vegetables should not clump together; you should be able to see individual strands of turnip and carrot.
  • Taste. Season with salt and pepper accordingly.

Congratulations, you have just cooked jiu hu char, a dish synonymous with the Penang Peranakans. Eat either with hot white rice or as the filling in a sambal belacan smeared lettuce leaf.

I hope mum gets well enough soon for me to cook this for her. It will be a role reversal.

Jiu hu char.


* Cho lor – Hokkien. Translates to rough, but usually used in relation to people. It usually means the person is clumsy or unrefined, not something one wants to hear in the description of someone. 

** Kasar – Malay. Translates to rough, or coarse. If used to describe a person, it usually means the person is coarse, unrefined, not really bad mannered but not quiet clued in on social niceties. 

Dancing with Myself…

Drew Barrymore said this a while ago: “There’s a tremendous difference between alone and lonely. You could be lonely in a group of people. I like being alone. I like eating by myself. I go home at night and just watch a movie or hang out with my dog. I have to exert myself and really say, oh God, I’ve got to see my friends ’cause I’m too content being by myself.”

And I have to confess, as I get older and more comfortable in my own skin, I have begun to appreciate my solitude more and more, to the point where, if I am not forced to make appointments, I would rather hang out at home with my books and music and movies and TV series. Besides, with the interwebs these days, it’s difficult to not be connected to the world.

But still, a girl has still got to eat. And some days, when I don’t feel very creative or can’t be bothered to recreate any of Jamie Oliver’s 15 minute meals, I am very glad that mum provides me with a steady supply of sambal udang kering and sambal belacan. As long as there’s bread and bacon and assorted sambals, I have no need to venture out into the world and I can eat what I want, when I want.

And I have to say, sambal belacan goes on everything. And I mean EVERYTHING. Take one late night, when I was hungry. All I did was fry up some bacon and an egg, toss in some sprouts (so I can pretend it’s a healthy thing I’m eating; and the bread is sprouted grain bread, so it’s REALLY healthy), slather on a little sambal belacan in place of ketchup and Voila! Ten minutes.

Bacon, egg, sprouts and sambal belacan sandwich


But I’m Malaysian and, sometimes, truly lazy. So, for those lazy times, it’s instant noodles. But since I occasionally have pretensions to being a gourmand, not to mention delusions of eating healthy food, here’s what I do:

Step 1: Wash egg.

Step 2: Put egg in pan for water to boil

Step 3. When water boils, add instant noodles and handful of fresh vegetables. Toss in packet of flavouring.

Step 4: After two minutes, pour it all into a bowl, rescue boiled egg, peel under running water (unless you have asbestos fingers).

Step 5: Garnish with sambal udang kering.

A more original take on the instant noodle staple

Time check: Five minutes. And if you serve it in a nice bowl, it looks good too.

I mean, I want to eat well (although if I’m making instant noodles, the term “eating well” becomes a little debatable), but I’m just to damn lazy to do anything more than throw stuff together. And speaking of throwing stuff together, this is literally a two-minute meal:


And then I go back to my book/movie/TV series/FB game/whatever is distracting me at that point in time.

Who says you can’t eat well when you’re alone? Actually, who says you need to have company at all?

Right, now excuse me while I catch up on the latest episode of The Big Bang Theory.