Lower East Side
What I am about to say is Southern sacrilege. I hail from the Mountains of East Tennessee and the Southern Appalachian region of Western North Carolina, where biscuits, grits and some form of cooked pork have been life-giving staples through centuries of hard winters, The War of Northern Aggression, lean economies, droughts and more hardships than a lot of other regions. Southerners have made breakfast into a balm to heal all spiritual and bodily wounds, starting the day with hearty offerings meant to carry a young farmer through through till dinner. But here’s the truth:
I never did like breakfast.
American breakfast, to be more specific. I’ll suffer through scrambled eggs, hash browns are improved by ketchup, oatmeal nor cream of wheat can I tolerate, cold cereal’s okay as dessert, but may no pancake ever cross the threshold of my lips. I’ve felt similarly unimpressed by french toast, waffles, toast, or biscuits. They’re all right I guess, but no match for the glories and wonders of lunch and dinner, when fruit can be made newly savory on the grill, or smokey meat melds into a sesame laden bun, or the crunch of crisp vegetables satisfy a craving so clean and pure. So I’ve been excited to live in New York City, where perhaps I can seek out breakfast alternatives like fried rice omelettes, dim sum delights, or who knows what other worldly meals I could discover to replace my eternal boredom for the Southern American standard?
One dish in particular has been on my list, and I finally crossed it off last week.
The Chinese rice porridge known as Congee.
I ended up at Congee Village last week, at 100 Allen St., after a desperate attempt to eat at Mission Chinese, a new hot spot for Lower East Side hipsters who love young, macho, renegade chefs. After 45 minutes, I could wait no more, but eventually did try the Kung Pao Pastrami, which I’ll save for a later post.
The early summer evening was growing alarmingly cooler, as dark clouds gathered overhead my mood took a turn, and I was dangerously close to entering the Bell Jar by the time we were finally seated at Congee Village. Turns out a cheery, bamboo furnished/tropical style/Midcentury quirk decor was the perfect fix to lift me out of my spiraling mood. The congee options are plentiful, and range from the conservative (chicken and black mushroom) to the more authentic (pig’s blood and sliced fish). After tucking into a $5 bowl of roast duck and meatball congee, I quickly realized why an entire continent begins their day with this hearty rice and water porridge. Adorned by a splash of vinegar and a dollop of soy sauce, sprinkled with ginger and scallions, this is life-giving mana, almost supernatural in its rejuvenatory properties. The warmth of this comforting dish soothed my chilled bones, and made me feel like Popeye after he eats a can of spinach. Its silky texture was extremely pleasing, and the flavors unfolded with fortifying, savory, peppery richness. Chicken Congee for the Soul is more like it.
With a spring in my step and the light once again returned to my eyes, I paid what felt like the most reasonable amount of money for any meal I’d had in Manhattan, and walked out into the Lower East Side to rejoin the land of the living.
This latest excursion only made me more curious about what culinary wonders lie beyond the typical diner breakfast. What other suggestions do you have for breakfast options that stray far from average American fare?