Cooking

The Jook's on You

Win the Thanksgiving leftovers game with creamy, rich Chinese turkey porridge
Photos: Tasting Table
Thanksgiving Jook

The burnished beauty of a turkey is out. The family's designated carver takes the long skinny blade and pronged skewer. And now the most crucial part of the Thanksgiving feast comes: stripping off all the meat and tossing the turkey carcass along with a smoked ham hock, ginger and scallions straight into a crock of water for Thanksgiving jook (see the recipe).

Or at least that's how Brandon Jew, the chef behind Mister Jiu's, a contemporary Chinese restaurant set to open in San Francisco's storied Chinatown early next year, sees it.

"The next morning, you wake up, and there is a pot of jook on the stove that's ready to go. If you want any, you turn on the burner and help yourself," Jew says. "This time of the year, I could have jook every day."

Jook, also known as congee, is an ancient Chinese porridge, first recorded as made with millet by the Yellow Emperor Huang Di in the 2000s BC and later cooked with prized grains of rice in less opulent times by the poor to stretch out the grains and leftover meat. Traditionally, it's made by simmering a small amount of grains with tons of water—and, if you're lucky, a whole chicken—for hours until it turns into a thick, velvety porridge best scooped with youtiao, barely sweet batons of fried dough. And it's the only way to make use of that picked-over carcass you'd normally toss out this Thanksgiving—and the best breakfast the next day.

"I feel like there's this range, because it's a vehicle for so many different flavors," Jew says. "To me, it's like the Italian polenta. When something's that thick and hot, you can feel it almost warming you up from the inside out."

Though Jew's spent the last three years studying Chinese cooking, even traveling to Shanghai to apprentice at the cutting-edge Whampoa Club, in preparation for Mister Jiu's, his Cal-Ital kitchen roots show. He learned cooking according to the season, even down to the day's weather, at the legendary Zuni Café under the late Judy Rodgers, butchering whole animals and making something out of every measly part with Michael Tusk at Quince and eventually opening up Bar Agricole, where he earned three stars from the San Francisco Chronicle.

"I cooked in Italy, did the Cal-Med thing at Zuni and worked my way up the line at Quince, and I got to this point where I was wondering as a Chinese American kid, How far can I get in Italian food?" Jew remembers. "At the same time, my grandma was passing away, and I was trying to get recipes from her. I realized how important it was to continue tradition and change people's perceptions of what Chinese food could be."

It's something that has been nagging at him for a decade.

"It was how Americans were talking about Chinese food, how all the experiences have been really greasy, not good to you, cheap, questionable," Jew says. "It was a different experience from what I grew up with, and I couldn't blame them, because I could see the quality of restaurants declining with Chinese food."

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Those people weren't spending the day shopping with his grandma, hitting up 10 shops just for dinner, and watching her scan the produce, then zeroing in on the most pristine ingredients and elbowing other Chinese grandmas to take her prize.

"That kind of attention in how she was picking her ingredients was even more intense than how I pick ingredients, and I'm an ingredient nerd," Jew says. "You start losing touch with how Chinese families really eat versus in a Chinese restaurant."

And that's what Jew wants to bring to Mister Jiu's but with an intense focus on ingredients, stripping away the cornstarch, MSG and sugar, and making the simple, flavorful Chinese food he loves and most have been missing out on.

In the meantime, he's been testing recipes and dreaming up dishes at home, including this jook, which he will be serving at the Hedley & Bennett pop-up at Heath Ceramics the day after Thanksgiving. A version of it will definitely appear on the lunch menu at Mister Jiu's and is loosely inspired by the post-Thanksgiving one his mom always makes.

He keeps the ham hock—"The roasted carcass has given off its flavor already, so she bolsters it with the smoked ham hock," Jew explains—and adds a few more aromatics to the simmering stock. Once the stock is cooled and flavorful, he dumps in the rice, cooking the two until the grains are plumped with smoky, meaty flavors. And unlike the Western way of making a soup, Jew prepares everything separately, roasting Brussels sprouts and sunchokes and chopping cilantro and scallions, to mix in at the very end with whatever leftover turkey meat escaped the day-before carnage. That separation is key.

"If you were to add everything at once, the delicate nuances of the rice would be lost, and it would become more homogenous," Jew says. "If you know what to expect with every bite, you get a little bit bored, and you don't have that excitement of that next bite. Separating them from the jook enables you to keep adjusting until you find the perfect bite."

We just found it.

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