For my birthday back in November I got Uyen Luu’s My Vietnamese Kitchen and I was so excited. I dove into it and buried myself in the vibrant colors and beautiful photography, wanting to cook and eat everything all at once. Then I started looking through the lists of ingredients. It is fair to say that Vietnamese cooking requires a lot of what we would term ‘specialist’ ingredients − but, of course, they wouldn’t be considered specialist ingredients in Vietnam, would they?
Some of the recipes are a bit labor intensive and some of them put me off with the amount of money you’ve got to spend on meat just to make stock from it. I understand the importance of a really good broth for things like pho, don’t get me wrong, but I didn’t expect to have to buy £20 worth of beef to do it! Not all the recipes are hard work though, and not all of them require you to buy half a cow.
Congee is a popular rice porridge dish throughout Asia, with each culture having a different variation. Plain congee is the original humble pie. It’s a food made to stretch rice further, to fill starving bellies when there is nothing else. Uyen Luu’s fish congee is billed as Vietnam’s answer to chicken noodle soup; perfect for a cold winter’s night or to kick a cold. It uses already cooked rice in a fish stock − the stock would typically be made with the bones of whatever meat or fish you were using − and flavored with ginger and, in this case, fish sauce.
It is deceptively simple. What I thought would be a bit insipid or too much of a one-hit wonder turned out to be incredibly flavorful. It wasn’t bursting with flavor, that implies something aggressive, shouty even. This beautiful, silky bowl of goodness might be better described as humming with flavor; a gentle, constant note that starts in your mouth and, by the time you’ve taken your last bite, every inch of you is humming along with it.
It’s one of those dishes that seems to restore your inner balance and make you feel in harmony with the world. So next time you feel a bit down or just not quite right, take 20 minutes to make this soup. Then just sit back, relax and let the goodness work out all your kinks from the inside out.
Recipe adapted from My Vietnamese Kitchen
1/3 cup Jasmine Rice or 1 cup cooked rice
3 1/2 cups Fish Stock
2 Tbsp Ginger, grated
1 Tbsp Fish Sauce
2 fillets firm white fish (I used River Cobbler)
1 Tbsp Oil
1 large bulb Pak Choi, separated into leaves
3 Green Onions, finely chopped
1/2 Lime, zested and cut into wedges
Sriracha or finely sliced red chillies
1. Bring the rice and 2/3 cup water to a boil with a big pinch of salt. As soon as it boils, turn the heat as low as it goes and cook for 10-15 minutes until all the water is absorbed and the rice is cooked.
2. In a large saucepan, combine the cooked rice and the fish stock and bring to a boil. Simmer rapidly for 20 minutes.
3. In the meantime, heat the oil over medium heat in a shallow pan which is too big for just the fish. Season the fish on both sides and add to one side of the pan. Add the pak choi to the other side.
4. Pan fry for 3-4 minutes per side until golden. Stir the pak choi leaves from time to time so they don’t burn.
5. Add the ginger and fish sauce to the congee and cook for another few minutes, but make sure not to let it get too thick so it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan.
6. Ladle the congee into deep bowls and top with the fish fillets and pak choi and garnish with green onions, chillies and/or sriracha, lime zest and a squeeze of lime juice.