Congee Is The Cure

Have you ever eaten something that was spicy enough to wake the dead? Though not for the weak of stomach, that might be just what the doctor ordered.

That was the literal inspiration for this recipe, glutinous rice porridge, AKA congee. Of course, the original dish is incredibly mild, sometimes seasoned only with a pinch of salt, if that. Meant to soothe an upset stomach, it’s classic sick day food that’s easy to digest and gently nurse the unwell back to health. Now I’m beginning to think that the opposite approach might be more effective.

Mo Dao Zu Shi (魔道祖师) is far from a food-focused donghua, but stick with me here. The protagonist, Wei Wuxian, is known to make his meals unbearably spicy, to the point that you’d think one’s spirit would depart their body after a single bite. This turns out to be an asset that ultimately cures those suffering from corpse poisoning.

There’s good sense to back this theory up. Hot peppers have genuine medicinal properties granted by that characteristic burn. Capsaicin is the compound responsible for its culinary prowess and health benefits.

What are the benefits of capsaicin?

  • For short term pain relief, biting into a blisteringly hot food releases endorphins, creating a mild “high” and dampening other discomforting sensations, like headaches, joint pain, and beyond.
  • Chili peppers are great for improving heart health! Studies have shown they can reduce inflammation, lower cholesterol, and increase blood flow.
  • Stress less with a calming dose of B-complex vitamins such as niacin, pyridoxine (vitamin B-6), riboflavin and thiamin (vitamin B-1). Deficiencies in these vitamins can lead to added anxiety or trouble regulating moods over time.
  • Have tissues handy because this stuff will clear out your sinuses and ease congestion. Plus, capsaicin has antibacterial properties which are effective in fighting and preventing chronic sinus infections.

Most importantly, this is medicine you’ll WANT to take.

Toppings for congee are entirely up to the eater. Creamy rice porridge can do no wrong as a gracious base for anything your heart desires. Aromatic ginger and garlic are a classic starting foundation, amplified by savory, salty soy sauce.

Consider the following ideas to customize you own invigorating and restorative hellbroth:

  • Shiitake mushrooms are brilliant here, chopped finely to infuse every grain with umami.
  • To satiate a heartier appetite, bulk it up with plant proteins, like baked or braised tofu, or cooked beans.
  • Add textural contrast with toasted pine nuts or slivered almonds.

The only non-negotiable is the chili crisp. This is what transforms a bowl of mush into a downright addictive meal. While it’s tempting to eat it straight from the jar, try to keep at least a 1:1 ratio of chili crisp to congee, for the sake of your stomach.

Whether it’s a cold, flu, or corpse poisoning, this flaming hot chili crisp congee will cure what ails you.

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Feeding Hungry Ghosts

What do ghosts eat? It feels like a silly question to consider, but at the same time, deadly serious. Presenting such offerings to the dearly departed shows respect, and more importantly, our lasting love. Like living people, I’d imagine that ghosts have diverse tastes, unique to every individual spirit. Whatever might have brought them comfort during their lives would undoubtedly be the best gift. Perhaps it’s sort of a test to keep their memory alive; if you hold dear such comparatively trivial details, surely you could maintain a better picture of the person as a whole.

In any event, what you feed the deceased varies depending on their culture, though I’ve heard that particular dishes are more auspicious than others. For example, did you know that the Chinese originally set out soft tofu for spirits, since it was believed that ghosts have long lost their chins and jaws, making it difficult for them to chew hard or crunchy foods. If there’s anyone I’d trust with this practice, it’s them; tofu first appeared in China around 220 BCE. If that’s not a proven track record, I don’t know what is.

As a person with terrible teeth, I can relate. Besides, once our ancestors have had their fill, the living are meant to enjoy the leftovers, so we should consider making something that everyone would enjoy. That’s why mapo tofu bao are ideal for celebrating the Hungry Ghost Festival.

Also known as the Zhongyuan Festival in Taoism and the Yulanpen Festival in Buddhism, it’s essentially the Chinese version of Día de los Muertos, when family and friends who have left this world come back to visit. To treat our guests of honor, I’d like to suggest these fiery little snacks that are pungent enough to lift the spirits, no matter what state they’re in.

Soft cubes of tender tofu luxuriate in a spicy sea of black garlic, fermented bean paste, and plenty of mala Sichuan peppercorns. Wrapped in a pillowy shell of steamed white bread, each bite practically melts in your mouth, exploding into fireworks of flavor. I wish I could lay claim to such a brilliant culinary innovation, but I’m just as happy to share Chez Jorge‘s brilliant formula, already fine-tuned and perfected.

It takes some time and effort to prepare, but considering the fact that your guests of honor have been waiting all year to drop in, I think it’s worth your time. Besides, the ghosts are fairly generous when it comes to sharing; you’ll be grateful for all the extras when the party’s over.

No Bones About It

What’s your go-to Chinese food order? When the menu is as thick as a novel, which section to you flip to first? I find it’s always a struggle to balance cravings for the familiar with the impulse to try something new. Venturing into unknown territory can be risky, but the delicious payoff could be even greater. This is true of any cuisine, but few cover such breadth and depth of different flavors; if you can’t read the original Hanzi, you never know exactly what might land on your plate.

For my family, I could usually predict what would end up on the table, especially if we’re talking about standard Americanized Chinese food. When I was younger and much pickier, it was always a tofu and vegetables in garlicky brown sauce for me. Probably chicken with black bean sauce for my mom, and some sort of stir fried noodle for my sister, hold the vegetables. We most likely got a plastic quart container of wonton soup to share, maybe some fried rice, and extra crispy wonton strips, even though my mom hated how greasy they were.

Scenes like this replay in my mind all through the holiday season. Chinese takeout is an essential part of Christmas to me, this single most important tradition that must be observed every year. While everyone else tore into presents underneath a big evergreen tree, we dug into paper takeout boxes at the kitchen table. Everyone picked at least one dish they wanted most and everything was shared, but the only thing that I never ate was my dad’s choice of boneless spare ribs.

Lurid red and gleaming in the light, I just didn’t understand them. How can ribs be boneless, for one thing, and what gives them such an unearthly color? Unwilling to gamble on the unknown, I stuck with my staples, year in an year out. Only now, as a vegan, avid food explorer, and nostalgic child of the 90’s, have I returned to the concept with insatiable curiosity.

My dad still loves the dish, so there must be something to it. Luckily, bones are not something I ever need to worry about with vegan proteins, taking mystery meat out of the equation entirely. Beet juice is my favorite source of scarlet food color, lending a subtly earthy flavor that harmonizes beautifully with mushroom stock at the same time. Garlic, ginger, and five-spice powder sing out clearly from that savory soy base, creating the signature flavor that truly defines the dish. Soy curls soak in all that flavor in half the time of traditional prep, speeding right through the cooking process with the help of an air fryer.

Most places would pride themselves at having meat so tender that it practically melts in your mouth, but that was not such a selling point for my dad. Even if the food was still blazing hot upon delivery, he would put the whole thing straight into the toaster oven to crisp up the edges. As such, my rendition is on the extra-crispy side, blackened around the edges, super juicy, and thoroughly lacquered with sweet, sticky glaze all over.

Whether you’re celebrating the holidays with your family or just craving this old school staple, these are the boneless spare ribs you wish the local takeout restaurant would make. At least, they’re everything I wanted from the dish, any time of year.

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Wham, Bam, Dan Dan

It’s a good thing I love grocery shopping so much, because I tend to do it more than your average bear. Especially in my days before moving to Austin, when I lacked proper transportation for bulky or heavy items, I would find myself making multiple trips to carry everything on foot- Sometimes in the same day and at the same store, no less. Somehow my hapless friends often find themselves roped into these missions, since the market is “just along the way” to our original destination, or I’ll suddenly remember I’m in dire need of x, y, and z, which of course I’d love to share when the recipe was done. There’s always some good excuse, or at least one reasonably convincing.

Not all accomplices in this recurring crime are matched in their skills for smooth acquisitions and quick getaways, however. Some in particular have proven to be more of a liability rather than an asset. These people know just how to stir the pot before we ever get into the kitchen.

Scanning the aisles with a short, clear list in hand, I’ll have my mission set, but no matter how efficiently we cruise past tempting oddities and intriguing new ingredients, it’s impossible to maintain the same steady pace. Our combined culinary curiosity can’t stand up to the power of a new food mystery, no matter how relatively mundane. On a quest for plain, ordinary, unexceptional bananas, the basket somehow becomes heavy with unlisted extras.

This recipe, and so many others, come to think of it, are entirely their fault. An unusual style of noodles caught my eye and BOOM, they snap it up without a second to breathe, let alone consider the purchase, practically frothing about a story they read about this rarefied staple.

What was such an esoteric import doing at the pitifully ordinary mega mart? How could we possibly pass it by? Suddenly we were on a search and rescue mission, precious cargo in hand, hustling to the checkout line before I could protest.

In the Sichuan province of China, dan dan noodles are typically served as a snack, rather than an entree, swimming in a thick, fiery red broth spiked with chili oil. Pork was used sparingly as a seasoning, but if you ask me, even greater flavor can be drawn from wild mushrooms, rich with umami and unbelievably meaty texture.

Dan dan noodles found in the US are quite different from the original, of course, bearing a gentler sauce that’s more sweet and sour than spicy. Sometimes you might even find sesame paste blended in to add creaminess and mellow out the spices. My approach is a blend of these two styles, creating something entirely inauthentic and recognizable to absolutely no one of either culture. That is, in a word: Perfect.

Cashew butter creates a smoother, more neutral canvas to paint with dazzling Sichuan peppercorns, allowing their unique mala essence to shine through. The “holy trinity” of aromatics in Chinese food are in full force, harnessing the foundational flavors of garlic, ginger, and scallions to carry such bold, nuanced flavors with grace. Funky fermented black beans play off the earthy notes of the mushrooms, echoing back savory tones to the soy sauce and nutty toasted sesame oil all at once. It’s hard to say whether the noodles, mushrooms, or sauce itself is the star of the show, but the overall effect is worthy of a standing ovation.

Authenticity be damned. Let’s just explore, create, and make something that tastes good together.

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Fiery Love Affair

For a spicy gift that will really set your Valentine’s heart aflame, skip the chocolates this year in favor of a more fiery expression of adoration. Chili crisp is the all-purpose condiment that makes every dish irresistible, even if it’s just a bowlful of plain white rice. Heck, you could spoon it over scoops of vanilla ice cream for dessert with equal success, too.

It’s not just for heat seekers hell-bent on toeing the line between pain and pleasure. Aromatics blend in a delicate balance of nuanced flavors, far more complex than your average hot sauce. Satisfying bites of garlic and shallot define the uniquely crunchy texture, while cinnamon, anise, and ginger, create a symphony of complex seasoning.

Ubiquitous in specialty grocers and online, Lao Gan Ma, (老干妈) or “old godmother” is the brand to beat. This simple red labeled jar has dominated the market since its inception in 1997. Cheap, accessible, deeply satisfying across the board; it’s the gold standard that’s hard to beat. That said, anything homemade always has an edge over the competition.

I’m far from the first to take a DIY approach to chili crisp, nor can I claim to have reinvented the concept. I didn’t even rewrite the recipe. Rather, I took a page from Bon Appetit and would implore you to do the same. Show someone you really care by going the extra mile to make a superlative spicy Valentine this year. The best way to a person’s heart is through their stomach, and this one will really set their passion ablaze.