“Plain rice porridge is bland and chinese pickles are too salty,” goes the oft repeated complaint. Both descriptions are true, but only if you eat them separately. Porridge is smooth but lacking for highlights. Wolfing down a chopstick load of 20%-salt-content pickles without a chaser is not a pleasant experience for most. The trick is in mixing the two. And China’s premier knows this.
When Li Keqiang ate China’s most basic breakfast food with a side of the pickled brassica tuber zhacai, he was doing what innumerable Chinese do every morning: he was adding some ever-so-simple flavor to his ever-so-humble porridge. But while this might serve as a culinary demonstration for the uninitiated or as a celebrity endorsement product endorsement for marketers and investors, the political message was clear. Official dinners are to be limited to four dishes and a soup, and breakfasts are to be eaten alone in tent. But you can have some pickles with your porridge when you do.
Rice porridge– like oatmeal, grits and cream of wheat– is a base for a greater creation. Whether the toppings are savory or sweet, few but the hungry chef eat a crepe unadorned. Now, I would not put Zhacai on a French jianbing (煎饼), but I like zhacai in my porridge because porridge begs for toppings. First, the salt load in zhacai can be when reduced by soaking it in water. If mixed thoroughly with a long-simmered porridge, your common morning fare becomes saltier and more sour. If you’re feeling like the Premier did when visiting the Ya’an earthquake site, you can choose a spiced variety. And if eaten one strip at a time, its crunch compliments the smoothness of the dish.
Unlike Premier Li, my most recent porridge was garnished with plain Fishwell Zhacai (鱼泉榨菜) and not the upmarket Wujiang Fuling Zhacai brand (乌江涪陵榨菜). Wujiang has a celebrity spokesperson and a wider range of flavors. Bears watch the Fishwell stocks.