Jook

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As a kid, one of the staples of my illness-ridden childhood was jook with yuk sung, or dried shredded pork. For all the haters out there, yuk sung may sound strange, but the salty, yet sweet taste and the chewy, almost fuzzy texture made it one of the best parts of being sick. (Too be fair, most of the other aspects – the sore throats, the congestion, and the general self-pity – were pretty negative experiences.)

Seeing as this is the second post I’m writing about things I like when I’m sick, we can deduce three unalienable facts:

1. I’m sick way too often.

2. My parents are wonderful people.

3. If this was Sparta, I would definitely have been discarded as a total weakling in some ditch on the side of the road.

Thank god for modern medicine.

Upon arrival freshman year at college, I quickly came to the scary realization that when I got sick, no one was going to take care of me. Growing up with a doctor as father and a protective mother, I had always had an immediate diagnosis – no, I was not dying, it was just a bad cold – and dishes lovingly left on the stove for me to eat whenever I felt well enough to wander down to the kitchen. No one was going to take time off from work to check up from me, no one would have extensive medical knowledge to talk me down from my hypochondria, no one would cook me delicious jook, the quintessential Chinese sick people food.

As one of my friends discovered this year, jook is actually pretty difficult to find in suburban Boston. In his sick delirium, the closest he could find was…chicken rice soup. While I did not experience this concoction firsthand, from what I understand, it was simply some chicken and rice in what might have been really watery chicken stock, or just water, with a few limp pieces of cabbage. Good try, America, but China’s got you beat on this one.

Yet another reason why my parents are just fantastic people: they taught me how to make jook. Once I heard my friend was sick, I was able to cobble together some frozen chicken breasts, rice, and ginger into simple yet satisfying jook. (Alas, I have yet to find yuk sung that can be easily accessed by public transportation. Oh, the woes of having no car.) Jook is one of those dishes that just makes you feel healthier after just one spoonful. I swear, it’s like the Chinese found a way to recreate the flavors of life force.

Humans have accomplished some pretty amazing feats – there’s the Battle of Thermopylae, which inspired one of the most memorable movie quotes of all time, then there’s penicillin and and polio vaccinations – and then there’s jook, simple peasant food ingeniously imbued with some kind of ability, be it placebo effect or some medically based phenomenon, to make people just feel better. And from my frequent forays into illness, I can promise you, just the promise of feeling healthy can itself be a powerful cure.

Ginger Chicken Jook (adapted from Chow) – makes 6 servings

6 cups water

4 cups chicken broth

1 1/2 lb bone-in chicken legs or thighs (I used breasts)

1 cup long-grain white rice

4-6 thick slices of ginger, skin on

1 tsp kosher salt, plus more to taste

Coarsely chopped, fresh cilantro for garnish

Sliced scallions, for garnish

Place all ingredients except cilantro and scallions in a large, heavy-bottomed pot and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer the mixture uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the rice has completely broken down and the mixture is creamy, about 1 hour.

Turn off the heat and remove the chicken to a cutting board. Shred the chicken into bite-sized pieces, discarding cartilage and bones. Return the chicken shreds to the jook. Stir to combine, taste and season with additional salt and (white) pepper as needed. Ladle into bowls and top with cilantro and scallions.

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