674 Broadway, San Francisco, CA | 415.398.8838 | open daily 8 am – 1 am.
I did not grow up eating rice porridge, although my father would occasionally reminisce about his mother serving him okayu when he was feeling under the weather as a child. The closest thing we had was ochazuke, which is just green tea poured over rice and topped with pickled vegetables (fukujinzuke). Rice porridge is like chicken soup for Asians because it is easy to digest and so soothing. Last week I became positively obsessed with the Chinese version called congee that is served at Hing Lung Restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The word congee (also known as jook in Canton) comes from the Indian “kanji”, which refers to the water in which the rice has been boiled. Below is the front kitchen where they keep large vats of the steaming thick porridge ready to serve, as they are famous throughout the land for their jook, which is served all day long. You get the best deal if you come between 8 – 11 am because you can get a bowl of jook for $2.50.
Every day last week, we ate Chinese food at lunch perhaps to celebrate Chinese New Years, and for the most part at Hing Lung. The dining room gets pretty full with what appear to be locals, but the servers recognized us with broad smiles when we returned for our second visit.
Previously, I had thought rice porridge to be bland and about as interesting as plain oatmeal, but that was until I had the congee at Hing Lung. The consistency is thick and creamy and while it looks pale and like it will taste bland, it is very richly flavored and savory. The meat is slow cooked until it is tender and nestles down unseen at the bottom of the bowl.
It is the ultimate comfort food and the favorite of many as the Foodgal just posted the Joys of Jook, and Passionate Eater has recently written about varieties of toppings that she loves such as pork floss and the thousand year old egg, even a haiku about congee, but then she is a passionate one. She presents a compelling argument of the beauty of preserved eggs, even convincing me. I now can see magnificence in this.
On my first visit, I ordered the Frog’s Leg with Mushroom Congee. The porridge was mild and savory with a pronounced flavor of ginger and while the meat did remind me of chicken, it was tough and hard to eat. I dined with Alexson and Jay who both had the Pork with Preserved Egg and we came back the next three days and I ordered that dish each time.
We also had fried bread sticks known as youtiao, which have an interesting history derived from ancient legend. During the time of Confucius, a government official falsely accused Yueh Fei, a famous scholar and poet, of treason. Yueh Fei was subsequently put to death. The Chinese name for the dish, Yu Za Kuei translates literally into deep-fried devils. Frying the crullers in oil symbolizes the government official and everyone who participated in the scheme being deep-fried in oil for eternity. One time we got them fresh out of the fryer, which is my absolute favorite state of anything fried… and we symbolically continue the tradition of frying the government officials! Then you dip it into the congee, the same way you would dip a doughnut into a cup of coffee, except that you use chopsticks…
Cows Tongue Pastry ngao lei so is another fried bread that is served. It has a crumbly, buttermilk donut-like consistency, and is slightly sweet.
Here is the fry master busily frying bread. They have a walk up window in the front of the restaurant that sells barbecued ducks, but most of the action seems to be going on in the restaurant. I wonder if you can request freshly fried bread…
According to Foodgal, congee is supposed to be very easy to make. But the big question is, will it taste as good as Hing Lungs? And what about the fried devils?!!! Sigh… I suppose it’s not about the fried stuff, it’s the congee that’s good for the soul… Anyways, I have a Fuzzy Logic Rice Cooker that has a setting to make rice porridge and I’ll let you know…