I came home to find a pot of chicken congee bubbling away on the stove. I can smell the scallions, their sharpness softened by the long simmering, and the tingle of ginger, a knob of which bobs about in the thick whiteness of the congee. Congee, or as they call it in Cantonese, jook, is, in its simplest form, a sort of gruel made by cooking rice in water or broth - more than you would use to make steamed rice - until the grains begin to dissolve into a watery porridge. When we were sick we would eat plain congee until our stomachs settled and we could eat solid food again. On weekends we would have it with breakfast; there would be a saucepan of the white congee on the stove, plates of sliced, dried tofu sprinkled with sesame oil, soy sauce, and finely chopped scallions, bowls of dried shredded pork. I loved congee with dried shredded pork, which came in plastic tubs, a bit like chewy, salty-sweet cotton candy.
And then there would be a plate of thousand-year-old eggs. They're not really a thousand years old. The eggs have been coated in a preservative paste (the ingredients of which I'd rather not think about) and left to cure, almost rather like pickling them, for something like a hundred days. The shells become a powdery greyish color, and crumble as you peel them away; the egg yolk turns a dark gray-green with a lighter ring around the edge, like the iris of an eye around the pupil. The liquid white turns a clear dark brown, almost like a deep layer of aspic around the salty yolk. I cannot begin to describe the flavor, only that it has a certain intensity to it, like aged cheese, a savory ripeness. It sounds disgusting, and when I was a child I thought they were horrible. Thousand-year-old eggs are an acquired taste, and in order to acquire that taste you have to either be Chinese or extremely adventurous.
It took me years, but now I sometimes find myself craving congee with cubes of roast pork and thousand-year-old eggs from the noodle shop in Chinatown. In dim sum restaurants the congee comes with golden strips of deep-fried wonton skins, and the full bowl before you is full of sharp contrasts - bland, soupy rice, chewy pork, gelatinous egg, sharp scallions, crunchy wonton skins. Perhaps I might buy the eggs myself, slice them, sprinkle them with little bits of scallions and a few drops of sesame oil and eat them with a bowl of congee. But tonight there is congee with chicken and scallions and ginger; I have stir-fried some garlicky green beans with a little soy sauce. The beans drip into my congee as I eat them, as we sit and talk about the day past and the day to come, as the sun slips down and the tv blares away in the other room. I am unaccustomed to eating at the dining table now, but it feels good to be at the table with my mother again, eating the food of my childhood as the night falls.