I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of breakfast and how different Americans treat the ritual meal than the rest of the world. I loved reading Jumpa Lahiri’s book the Interpreter of Maladies where she would describe her East Indian characters eating puffed rice and spices for breakfast. I loved visiting England and eating the traditional English breakfast of mushrooms, beans, tomatoes, sausage and toast. The fatty bacon grease and oozy omelets, overly dough heavy world of pancakes, processed sweet cereals, sugar crusted donuts and chocolate stuffed croissants of America never jibed with my stomach’s deep, guttural desire to be properly nourished in the morning. When I stumbled upon a Gourmet magazine essay from the early 1940s written by a reporter who was observing daily life in a lumberjack camp, it suddenly made sense to me. American breakfasts had stemmed from days when people had to get up early on farms and in labor fields and eat enough carbs to fuel them up and get them going for the day. But that is no longer so relevant to the majority of Americans who get up in the morning to drive to an office and sit on their bums all day.
In China, Japan and many Asian countries, a version of rice pudding called jook or congee is typically served for breakfast. The dish basically consists of rice and lots of water cooked for hours into a thin porridge consistency. Herbs, roots and other nourishing things like ginger, dates, vegetables, and meats are added at the beginning and end of cooking to accentuate the dish, turn it savory or sweet and add medicinal or tonic properties to the stew. In China, a typical grocery store pharmacy will sell bags of “weekly soup” that consist of locally grown, seasonal herbs, barks, seeds and the like for people to add to that week’s batch of rice pudding that is made on Sunday night and eaten for breakfast throughout the entire week. A root like astragalus is typically thrown into the water all year to boost the immune system.
Inspired by this idea but wanting to make it my own, I created a special rice pudding. Instead of white rice though, I use organic brown rice, which I prefer for its heartier textural bite and fortifying nutty taste. It is also one of the main ingredients in kicharee, which is purported to be a food of the gods for its miraculous healing components. Brown rice is known to strengthen the spleen, nourish the stomach, quench thirst, relieve irritability, and astringe the intestines. To make it a little special for breakfast, and because I do love my healthy sweets, I cook it with red Chinese dates and add coconut milk to the finished bowl. A meal just wouldn’t be a meal in my home without a little mixed up, patchwork and planetary ingredients twist!
1 cup organic brown rice
2 cups water
7 pieces astragalus bark
1 red Chinese date dried with pure sugar cane
¼ cup coconut milk
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
Bring the water, astragalus bark and red Chinese date to a boil in a pot and then add the brown rice. Cover and simmer on very low for 45 minutes then take off cover and fluff with fork. Pick out the astragalus bits and discard. The rice will now be about 4 cups worth. Take a cup of rice out and put in a bowl. Save the rest of the rice in the fridge for the rest of the week to reheat per meal. Add the coconut milk to the bowl of rice and stir. Sprinkle the cinnamon on top.
At some point don’t forget to eat the chewy, sweet red Chinese date as well for an extra little treat!