Learning > Recipes

Hunger Management: Make congee with barley

Tan Hsueh Yun on 13 Jan 2019

The Straits Times


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The grain need not be limited to a sweet treat, but can be used in a savoury dish


While out and about recently, I bumped into a friend. Without understating anything, we have both gone through big changes in our lives.


After exchanging pleasantries, she said, suddenly: "I don't know what I am doing."


Being slow of wit that day, my response was wholly inadequate. It was only later that the flood of words came, things I should have said.


I felt so much for her because I had been in that same terrible limbo.


Wobble applies only to food, I firmly believe - say, panna cotta or custard. It has no place in other parts of my life. The same applies to waffle. That should really just be something to order at brunch.


However, I know what it is like to wobble and waffle, to be uncertain of life and fearful of change. What I have found, though, is that while life can be an unpredictable minefield, there is no need to fear taking a step and have something blow up in my face. These days, I rather enjoy the spectacle.


It takes a conscious decision to flip a switch to let light in.


Flipping switches is one thing, but the work of actually grappling with change and dealing with it gracefully is quite another.


The process has been slow, but I keep plugging at it. Developing this ability is akin to building a body in the gym through multiple sets and endless repetitions. It is about pushing through muscle fatigue until, as my trainer posted on Facebook: "What seems impossible today will one day become your warm-up."


It helps to want to deal with change, I suppose.


I don't know what made me want to. Is it getting older? Conventional wisdom will have you believe that people become more set in their ways the older they get.


Calcification is not my thing though. I will fight it to my last breath. Is it because the comfortable box I was in became claustrophobic? Perhaps. Or maybe I was just sick of being a milquetoast.


When illuminated, the dark corners and scary alleyways of life are much less intimidating. It becomes possible to re-evaluate things in new ways, to look at life differently.


One of the benefits has been the spillover into the kitchen. You cannot cherry-pick the areas where you would accept change, of course.


I have always looked at barley one sweet way.


The grains come in handy in the hot months, when I boil them with water and candied melon to make a cloudy drink to beat the heat. In hawker centres, I love a dessert of lightly sweetened cold barley, ginkgo nuts and beancurd sheets, so soothing after a fish soup lunch.


Dinner at a restaurant made me rethink the way I eat barley. I had ordered grilled fish and it came with a most delicious barley risotto, the grains cooked with stock the way arborio rice is, and perfumed with Shaoxing wine. Tender with a hint of chew, grains bursting with juice, the barley was much more compelling than the fish.


So I got to cooking with pearl barley from the supermarket. I thought the grain would make a terrific congee with dried scallop and shredded chicken.


I cook it like I would risotto, using one part barley to four or five parts liquid. Some people pour in the stock all at once and let the barley cook. I prefer adding a ladle or two at a time and stirring until I get the consistency I want. The juice from steaming the chicken, and as much Shaoxing wine as you dare, add depth to the dish.


Minced pork, sliced fish, ginkgo nuts, fried peanuts, pork or chicken floss, whitebait, anchovies, canned abalone if money is no object - everything that people put in congee can go into this dish. A cook is limited only by his imagination.


This is the sort of rib-sticking meal a person needs to face the future.


The road ahead, for all of us, will no doubt be equal parts exciting, frustrating and rewarding. There will be a curve ball or 50.


Bring it.


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  • 100g dried scallop
  • 400g pearl barley 
  • 2 skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs
  • 1 Tbs Shaoxing wine
  • 1 tsp light soya sauce or to taste
  • 1 small onion or leek
  • 4 to 5 sprigs of fresh coriander
  • 2 to 3 scallions
  • 2 litres chicken stock
  • 2 Tbs cooking oil
  • Shaoxing wine to taste
  • Salt and white pepper to taste




1. The night before cooking, rinse the dried scallop under running water, place in a deep bowl, cover with tap water and soak overnight in the fridge. Drain and shred before cooking.


2. Pour barley into a colander, rinse under running water and let the grains drain while you prepare the other ingredients.


3. Marinate the chicken thighs for about 20 minutes with the Shaoxing wine and soya sauce. Steam over high heat for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the juices run clear when the meat is pierced with a sharp knife. Shred the meat, discard the bones and set aside. Reserve any liquid from steaming the chicken.


4. Chop the onion or leek, coriander and scallions.


5. Pour the stock and liquid from steaming the chicken into a pot, add the drained scallop and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer and keep it simmering while you cook the barley.


6. Heat the cooking oil in a large pot over medium heat. Saute the onion or leek until the pieces turn translucent. Add the barley, stir until the grains are coated with oil.


7. Add the chicken stock and the scallop to the pot two ladlefuls at a time and allow the grains to absorb the stock before adding more. I tend to use up all the liquid because I prefer a softer congee, but stop adding stock when the barley reaches a consistency you like. All the scallop should go into the dish. Add Shaoxing wine to taste. Stir the shredded chicken through the congee, add salt and pepper to taste.


8. Ladle into bowls and serve immediately, topped with the chopped coriander and scallions.


Serves four to six


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.



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