This past weekend I was craving a certain savory breakfast, one that I used to eat often as a child when I was living with my beloved grandparents in their 30th floor flat in Paris’ Chinatown. The whole family lived together, grandparents, aunts and uncle included. It was a fairly big two-bedroom apartment, with a living room overlooking Paris and an incredible view of the Eiffel Tower. From our windows, it looked as though the Eiffel Tower was standing on the roof of the nearest building, sparkling at night to say hello. I loved to look down and observe the cars riding by, like ants following each other in neat lines. But what I loved to watch most was the playground, and every day unfailingly I would ask my grandfather to take me down there and play.
My grandfather is one of those early morning types (I did not inherit those genes apparently). He would wake up around 5 or 6am, get dressed, put on his French-style beret and go for a walk around Chinatown and do his rounds. He’d stop by and say hello to people he knew, and perhaps practice some taichi in one of the nearby parks. Sometimes he’d bring back a baguette or two. And he’d have breakfast. And the whole household finally waking up would have breakfast too. It was a simple breakfast, some rice porridge accompanied by a few side dishes, pork floss, fermented tofu, pickled mustard greens, chinese olives, and sometimes an omelette with pickled radish.
When I stopped living with my grandparents, these kinds of breakfast became rarer, the convenience of a bowl of hot chocolate with toast often winning over. But on those occasions when my grandfather comes to stay with us, we’ll invariably cook some rice porridge for him, and if he happens to wake up before one of us, he’ll actually make it himself. On those days, I’ll have a bowl myself and remember how comforting a simple congee can taste. It was just this kind of breakfast that I was craving this weekend, a taste of home and childhood.
I scooped up some cooked rice from the rice cooker and boiled it with 4 or 5 times as much water. I looked through the pantry and fridge to figure out what to eat this with and spotted a jar of fermented tofu (a favorite of my grandfather’s) which I had bought a while back and had not yet opened, and then also decided to finish up our tub of pork floss. As I was putting this breakfast together, I thought that I should dedicate a few blog posts to those ingredients and dishes that might be foreign to some of you, prompting me to learn more about them at the same time. Fermented tofu and pork floss might sound strange, but I promise they taste better than they sound, to me at least!
Fermented tofu is pretty much the soy equivalent of cheese. There are many different kinds of fermented tofu, but the most common one is made using a double-ripening technique whereby the tofu is first mold ripened before being brine ripened. Mold ripening sounds off-putting? Think about cheeses like Camembert and Roquefort (ok, maybe those are off-putting to you too…). The brine used for the second ripening can be flavored with a variety of ingredients, such as chili, sesame oil, five spice powder etc. Wine may also be added to the brine to add some more enzymes and flavor.
This kind of fermented tofu is the one I’m used to eating and featured in the above picture. Like a good Roquefort, it is pretty pungent. But it also has a very creamy consistency. The way to eat it is to use your spoon to break off a little piece off the cube, then dip your spoon into your congee and eat that one big mouthful of congee and fermented tofu together. I have no idea how people ever thought of eating those two together, but they do make a good pair. Fermented tofu is also used as a condiment to flavor other kinds of dishes, like vegetable stir-fries.
For more info, head over to soyinfocenter.com.
You would expect that growing up in France, I would favor snacks like chocolate croissants and Nutella toasts. And I do. But actually what I would rush for coming back from school would usually be savory snacks. I remember for instance this phase when every day my sister and I ate slices of raclette cheese that we would melt in the microwave or little Knacki sausages that we would poke with a fork and also heat up in the microwave (I don’t know how some families can live without a microwave). And there would be the Asian snacks, like the nem chua I’ve included in my 30 Before 30 list. Or dried cuttlefish, or Asian beef jerky. And sometimes I’d just have a little handful of pork floss.
I know the name doesn’t so appetizing, but pork floss is just dried shredded pork that’s been flavored with sweetened soy sauce. It’s eaten with congee but it’s also a popular topping for buns, which you can find at Chinese bakeries. It’s made by stewing pieces of pork in soy sauce until the collagen has been completely cooked out. Then the meat is dried. And you’re left with these fluffy cotton-candy like salty sweet shreds of dried meat. I even found out that you can make your own at home. I shall add that to my 30 Before 30 list.
Teochew Congee (Teochew Moey)
Let’s talk about rice porridge, a.k.a. congee. The one in this post is a plain one without any kind of flavoring or additional ingredients. There are of course many kinds of congee and some restaurants are entirely devoted to that dish. The ones that I’ve been to in the US or in China typically feature Cantonese style congees. But as Teochew people, we pride ourselves in our own style of congee. The difference mainly lies in the texture of the rice. While the Cantonese cook their rice until it turns into a creamy mushy consistency, the Teochew strive to keep the integrity of each grain of rice intact. It is the trademark of a good Teochew congee. I’ve been told by friends that in Singapore, where Teochew moey can be more readily found, hawker center stalls will actually dump their Teochew congee as soon as it gets mushy. I personally am not that picky and will enjoy both types of congee (especially if someone else cooked it for me).
Do you have a favorite childhood breakfast? Any “strange” dishes that you love?