One of the beauties of living in Dubai is that the city’s multicultural population is reflected in the food. Whether you’re looking for killer kebabs, authentic Indian curry or high-end French cuisine, there is something for everyone. Nonetheless, we’re always pleasantly surprised when we stumble across a dish that’s a little more unique than most – which is exactly what happened on a recent visit to JoyBean Café in Deira’s Dusit Princess Hotel.
The restaurant is helmed by gregarious 50-year-old Bangkok native Chef Poonsak Sumonratanakul (though he’ll be the first to tell you he looks closer to 30), who came to Dubai almost 12 years ago. During his time in the city, Chef Poonsak has been plying his trade with a number of the city’s foremost culinary institutions: Fish Market at the former InterContinental Dubai in Deira (now the Radisson Blu), then the Crowne Plaza on Sheikh Zayed Road to open Dubai’s first branch of Wagamama, before joining the Dusit Princess in September 2009 as its pre-opening executive chef.
Since working at JoyBean, Chef Poonsak has introduced congee to the restaurant’s menu, making it one of the few places in town where it’s possible to sample the meal that is enjoyed for breakfast across Asia. But what exactly is it?
‘In Thailand, many food stores offer congee throughout the day,’ says Chef Poonsak. ‘It’s a very simple dish to make – a little like a one-dish meal. It can be served with a variety of ingredients: chicken, pork, seafood such as shrimps and fish flakes, salted egg or century egg, and is usually served with chopped spring onions and garlic.’
Of course, congee is made differently depending on the Asian country in which it’s served, although the basic preparation is the same: it involves boiling white rice until it breaks down into a thick porridge. The consistency can be altered depending on how much water is added.
Though the premise is simple enough, Chef Poonsak insists there are still a few tricks involved in making good congee. ‘It’s easy to cook, yes, but the secret is more technical…’ When pressed to divulge more, Chef Poonsak chuckles: ‘If you use only salt, rather than fish sauce, you get the best congee.’ Ah, that simple, eh? Let’s hope Chef Poonsak hasn’t given away his trade secret.
As well as being a breakfast staple, congee is also synonymous with sick people. Not that this should put you off, mind – it’s traditionally fed to the sick because it’s packed full of nutrients and, as Chef Poonsak points out, there’s not a great deal of chewing when it comes to congee, so it’s easily eaten. ‘When someone has a problem with the stomach or their body is weak, they cannot take heavy food. [A bowl] of congee is like a whole meal.’
Perhaps of more relevance to Dubai’s diners is the fact that congee is great for hangovers. ‘Congee is hot: it makes you sweat and makes you awake,’ says Chef Poonsak. This may explain why JoyBean is open until 4am on weekends. While he says that there aren’t a great deal of customers clamouring for congee in the small hours, he believes this is because few know what the dish is – let alone have realised that it’s a great antidote for drinking one too many.
So, is congee set to be the next kebab? Maybe not, but those who have sampled Chef Poonsak’s cooking have liked what they’ve tasted. ‘We get a lot of positive feedback about this food. It’s very comforting and a healthy choice as well, because it’s not fatty or oily. It’s basically boiled rice and water served with your favourite ingredients and condiments.’
JoyBean Café, Dusit Princess City Centre Dubai, Deira (04 209 5000)
We want more congee!
Though congee is rare in Dubai, there are still a few other places that serve this Asian super-soup
It’s not only Thai people who go crazy for congee – the Cantonese can’t get enough of the stuff either. Da Shi Dai in JBR (04 426 4636) serves chicken, prawn, or hammour congee for Dhs16 a bowl. The chicken congee also comes with century egg (black, pickled eggs – trust us, they taste better than you think). Dunes Café at the Shangri-La (04 343 8888) also serves traditional congee, accompanied by fried tofu, century egg, fresh scallions, ginger and sesame oil) for Dhs25, or as part of the breakfast buffet at Dhs115.
Seafood congee (khaw tom)
1 cup raw jasmine rice
10 cups water
50g mixed seafood (squid, fish, prawns)
1 bunch fresh coriander
Fried crispy noodles (see recipe below)
½ tsp salt
½ tsp white soya sauce
½ tsp white pepper powder
1 Mix rice, water and a dash of salt. Bring to the boil until the rice is cooked (30-45 minutes).
2 Add all seasoning and seafood, which should take five to 10 minutes to cook.
3 Sprinkle with coriander and fried crispy noodles (below), and serve piping hot.
1 Soak noodles in warm water until soft, then remove from the water to dry.
2 Deep-fry the noodles in hot oil (180°C) for one to two minutes, then sprinkle on the congee.
Stir-fried pak choi
120g fresh pak choi
5g fresh red chilli
5g fresh chopped garlic
3 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tbsp white soy sauce
1 tsp black soy sauce
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 Heat pan until hot and add oil.
2 Once oil is heated, throw in the pak choi, chilli and garlic, then stir fry for a few minutes,
3 Add the oyster, white and black soy sauce, then cook for two minutes. Serve with congee.
2 tbsp vegetable oil
150g sweet pickle radish
5g fresh leeks (sliced)
3 tbsp white soy sauce
1 tsp white sugar
1 Heat pan and add oil, followed by sweet pickle.
2 Stir-fry until golden brown, then add leek.
3 Add white soy sauce and sugar and continue cooking for three to five minutes.
4 Add egg and cook for one or two minutes.
5 Serve hot with congee.