Summer Breakfast in China (and since I’ve been home)

While I was in China recently, I began to seriously consider breakfast=rice. I know there are noodles, dumplings, jook, soups, steamed savoury and stuffed breads, but it was the rice: so beautiful pristine and fragrant, that called me back every day, as soon as I woke up. The first few days I ate my way around the breakfast buffet, until I hit upon the things I really loved; along the way I discovered a window where I could walk up and ask for special ingredients such as hot chile oil. One of the things about being in a land, like China, where the language is so far off your points of reference there is no common ground. You don’t speak THEIR language, they don’t speak YOURS, you have to find another way of communicating. Luckily, I was always good at mime.

So, asking for chile oil using mime was bound to be a lot of  fun! I pointed to my mouth, I took an air-bite, my eyes popped, i looked shocked, i fanned my mouth: it never failed: the women in the kitchen window making these special things broke into laughs. They called their friends to come see me for a repeat performance, and then they smilingly handed over a bowl of chile oil, and sometimes when i could figure out how to ask for it, a lovely fried egg. (fried egg+chile oil+rice=best breakfast ever).

Here is a snapshot of my lovely kitchen ladies in their little window-kitchen handing over special stuff such as my daily bowl of hot chile oil, or here I think it is an egg. A delicious fried egg.

Okay, I’m skipping over the part of the story that has me discovering the window-ladies, and how when I overheard any of my conference buddies expressing an interest in a fried egg, I would run over to the ladies and put up my finger: one, for one egg, two for two. The ladies laughed, they liked me, I was so exotic to them. They had, in fact, never had westerners in this hotel, so I can only imagine how they perceived me.

My buddies who I ran back with the fried eggs on a plate were amazed at how I had achieved this magical thing, producing a beautiful fried egg almost momentarily. I never told them my secret: the ladies. You know, shamefully, I liked the illusion of being a magical creature.

Getting back to my rice breakfast. I know, I know, blogs, they tell you what they ate today, they tell you things like, how this is the best whatever ever! and how their kids eat every bite. And how you’re going to yoga later. stuff like that, which you probably don’t want to hear.

So you’re going to ask me: why is YOUR rice breakfast, inspired by YOUR TRIP to China (already I can see you stifling yawns and reaching for the click on your computer) different? why is it any more interesting?

I’ll tell you: good steamed rice, topped with spicy (as in Sichuan) chile oil/paste, is delicious, something you can eat every day and vary it according to what else you have in the kitchen, in the garden, in your mind. A fried egg, oh yes! tofu in any shape or form? of course! some leftover meatballs, did you even need to ask? garlicky cucumber salad? (yes! and it was on the breakfast buffet, EVERY day, garlicky cucumber salad is possibly my favourite Chinese dish, though of course to me any cucumber salad will be my favourite dish wherever I am).

But really, keeping things simple, the other morning I noticed the lush growth of my laksa leaves (Vietnamese rau ram, Vietnamese coriander, culantro) and wondered what a few leaves in my rice+chile paste would be like. It was brilliant, and when I scattered a handful of toasted crisp salted peanuts on top, I’m telling you: incredible and so simple. The sort of dish you can eat for breakfast lunch or dinner, with freshly cooked rice or rice that has cooled to room temperature. It is the most perfect dish you can imagine if you like all of the ingredients. Because all of the ingredients are at their most delicious best, yet: combined? they are AWESOME.

My (and YOUR) rice breakfast

Steamed rice: The thing about a bowl of beautiful rice lies in the soaking. Somehow it is the soaking that releases the fragrance as the rice cooks; also letting it sit for a little while after cooked, to settle down, that helps make good rice really beautiful. I recommend soaking for all white rice that you are cooking by steaming, even for Persian rice or chelo.

Right now my favourite rice is Thai jasmine rice: it is fragrant, and though long-grain has just enough starch/stickiness to make it come together delightfully. Here is how I make my rice, these days. First: rinse the rice to get rid of its starch, talc, etc; place rice in saucepan and cover with cold water. Let sit and soak for about 30 minutes.

Drain, then return to pot, add enough water to cover the rice by about a finger-knuckle, cover and bring to the boil. Here is where I get very unscientific. Boil it a minute or two. Turn off the heat and let it sit for about 8 minutes and steam; the smaller batch of rice the shorter cooking time the larger pot of rice, the longer it will take. I like to add a few pinches of salt at this point. And sometimes, if i’m really in the mood for a richer rice, a small amount of chicken fat. But thats not when I’m eating it this austere, chile+herb+peanut breakfast way. Remove the lid, taste a grain or two, if the rice is dry add a small amount of water, if too wet, sigh….take lid off and cook it a few minutes without the lid. OR you could use a rice cooker which really is the best. OR you could just attach yourself to someone Asian and learn their family rice-cooking techniques. I am on the look-out for this situation as we speak.

For your breakfast:

Your beautiful rice, and I am happy eating it leftover from the day before, not refrigerated, but at room temperature

Handful salted preferably dry roasted peanuts

A few leaves rau ram, vietnamese coriander, laksa leaf, culantro, etc whatever you call it: tear up a few leaves–and i prefer the young leaves for this dish, if you have them

Sichuan chile paste and oil, as desired (either from a jar, or homemade–see below)

Using a rice paddle, or a big spoon, scoop out as much rice as you like into your bowl, then scatter with the toasted peanuts and rau ram herb, torn into small pieces or chopped, as you like.

Dab as much Sichuan chile paste with some of the oil onto your rice, and enjoy your breakfast.

If your rice is too spicy from the chile paste, just add more rice. Oh, yes, and really: don’t fool yourself that you can eat this with a fork or spoon: the chopsticks are of acute atmospheric and aesthetic importance! (though you’ll probably need to put the bowl near your face as you ferry the rice to your mouth).

Chile paste+oil

Sichuan Chile Paste/Oil

The simplest chile oil consists of heating oil up then pouring it, sizzling, over a jar or bowl of chile flakes. As the chillies fizz in the heat of the hot oil, they toast and become one with the oil: chillies taking on the richness of oil, oil taking on the heat and flavour of the chillies.

In a jar or bowl, place a spoon to keep the glass from breaking in the heat of the hot oil; it will conduct the heat right on out of the jar or bowl.

Add a few spoonfuls of chile flakes: I use a combination of Turkish turkish flakes for their mildness of heat and aromatic taste, say 2 parts, then I add about one part hot chile flakes, the kind you might eat on a pizza. i might also break up a few whole dried chillies and put them in the jar. The choice is yours, but i find a nice combination of several different types gives the most depth of flavour.

About 1/2-3/4  cup/ 4-6 fluid ounces mild oil: traditionally vegetable, soy, safflower, sunflower oil is used; I prefer using olive oil as I always have it on hand and am convinced of its goodness.

Spice mixture: as desired: 1/4-1/2 tsp as desired cumin seeds, several big pinches powdered ginger, about 1/4 tsp szechuan peppercorns.

About 1/2 teaspoon salt

If desired; 1-2 teaspoons preserved fermented black beans (do not soak)

Aprox 3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil or as desired

Mix together the chillies, spices and salt in a well-washed jar or bowl and place a spoon in it to keep the vessel from shattering when you add the hot oil.

In a small saucepan heat the vegetable or olive oil until it just begins to bubble around the edges. Carefully pour the hot oil over the chillies, spices and salt mixture which will sizzle and smoke as the oil is absorbed. Take care to keep your face away from the hot oil and not to inhale the chile vapors.

When it cools a bit add the black beans and the sesame oil.

Leave it to cool, then cover with a lid; keep on the shelf to use as you like. It should keep a long time, as there are no ingredients such as garlic that could grow nasty bacteria, but I like to make small batches–enough to last a few weeks. And then I make it again.

Once you have the basics you can adjust it to your taste at the moment:

Chile Bean Oil

When I have only a little bit of Chinese chile bean sauce left in a jar i’ll add freshly made chile oil to it, and stir it through. The chile bean sauce is so hot so tangy, so salty, and so very deliicous. A great way of using the last bit of it.

Much Milder Chile Oil

To spoon on generously

Double the amount of oil, or even triple, quadruple it: you want the taste of the chillies but without the pain of its heat. A lot of oil and a small amount of chile still has flavour and zing.

Chile paste+oil, garlic

Garlic Chile Relish
Sooooooo good:

2-3 cloves garlic

1/4 teaspoon salt

About 1/4 cup of the chile paste=oil

Extra oil if chile paste is very hot

Crush the garlic and salt in a mortar and pestle until it forms a paste. Stir in the hot chile paste and oil, adding extra oil if needed to tame the heat.

Because of the garlic, the chile paste/oil will last no longer than 2 weeks or there will be a risk of poisoning (botulism). Best to make it fresh before serving.

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