A soothing, simple bowl of well-flavoured rice and stock topped with fresh herbs and maybe some cooked shredded meat.
This is a savoury yet light dish with lots of bright leafy herbs, but listen: sharing this dish at this time of year, for me, is about a change of palate and a hint of nostalgia. I fell into the trap of assuming everyone was doing juice cleanses and eating thin soup and frolicking through fields of salad at the tail end of the festive period, but I’m bored of this self-righteous shunning of rich foods and weird shame-rituals about bodies. I just want to share good things with you with no polite self-hatred attached, you know? It’s like how people talk about Hainanese chicken rice as low-fat-whatever food when in Thailand it’s called chicken fat rice, or when konnyaku is marketed as zero-calorie food when you could be enjoying it in oden. The food of people’s heritage isn’t faddy diet stuff.
So, let me tell you more about khao tom.
There are two types of soupy rice dishes: khao tom and jok. Both are considered affordable, light, digestible dishes suitable for sick people, and they’re associated with–but not exclusively eaten at–breakfast time. The types of seasonings and toppings are similar, too: meatballs, seafood, eggs, white pepper, leafy herbs and julienned ginger. Khao tom features whole or slightly broken up cooked rice grains cooked until soft in soup; my mother told me that you’d use the less pretty, broken-up grains in the bottom of the rice bag for this purpose. For jok, the rice is completely blended into the stock, making a silky smooth porridge.
I used to have khao tom for breakfast before school–scraping a bowl of it clean on a dark morning is one of my earliest food memories. It’s always been comfort food for me, and has the advantage of being slightly less fussy to make than noodle soup. After a Christmas full of knife-and-fork meals, I wanted something which could be easily slurped with a spoon. This was perfect.
Serves 2 as a main meal. Adapted from Thai Food & Travel, which is a classic version with pork balls cooked in the stock.
1/2 cup (120 ml) raw Thai jasmine rice
350ml/1 1/2 cups stock, or mix of water and stock
500 ml/2 cups + 1 tbsp good stock, such as this rich chicken stock with some coriander stems & garlic in the base
1 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tbsp fish sauce
Chicken bouillon granules
Handful or 2 of cooked, shredded meat (approx 75g – 125g/1 scant – very packed cup, from about 1 medium-large chicken breast)
quick small batch garlic & ginger oil (alternatively, simply use some fried garlic oil–large batch recipe here):
2 tbsp vegetable oil, any kind
1 inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely shredded (you’ll also use more raw ginger; see below)
2 plump cloves garlic, peeled and slivered
toppings & seasonings:
A good dusting of ground white pepper
2 spring onions, very finely sliced
Handful of fresh coriander leaves, roughly chopped
1 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and finely shredded
1 – 2 tbsp fried garlic & ginger oil from above
More fish sauce to taste
Rinse rice in a few changes of water until it runs clear-ish. Drain well, then fasten into a medium lidded pot with 350 ml (1 1/2 cups) stock or water. Bring up to a boil, then lower heat and simmer, partially covered, until grains are swollen and soft and most of the liquid is absorbed, 15 – 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the ginger & garlic oil. Put all the oil into a small frying pan with the finely shredded ginger and garlic. Heat together over a moderate flame until pale gold and fragrant. Remove pan from heat, leaving everything inside.
To finish the rice congee, pour 500 ml (2 cups + 1 tbsp) stock, light soy sauce, and fish sauce into the pot of cooked rice, stirring to combine. Bring back up to a simmer. Taste: it should be savoury and comforting. Season until it tastes good to you. I’ve no shame in telling you I’ll add a little chicken bouillon at this stage. Once you’re done, add the shredded meat and stir just to heat through. Remove from heat.
Serve by dividing congee evenly among bowls and dusting generously with white pepper. Pile on the sliced spring onion, coriander, and raw ginger, then add the fried garlic and ginger with their oil. Season with fish sauce to taste at the table.