It’s been a rough winter this year for those of us who aren’t especially fond of the snow, cold temperatures, and eternally grey skies. On the plus side, I’ve had plenty of excuses for warming up with congee (jook), the quintessential winter therapy in a bowl. For me, a spoonful of rice porridge (always using a Chinese duck spoon) transports me back to childhood, especially to the times when I wasn’t feeling well and I required something simple, yet sustaining. My mother or my Poh-Poh would make it, adding all sorts of goodies, like Chinese mushrooms, homemade fish balls, and dried scallops. I could feel myself coming back to life with each hot mouthful.
Richmond has some stellar congee options, from efficient food court offerings at Tak Fook Noodle & Congee Shop in Parker Place (4380 No 3 Road) to customizable bowls at Kongee Dinesty (150-9020 Capstan Way). On a Saturday morning, my belly growling, I headed to try two versions with my father who also wanted a stick-to-the-ribs breakfast. I chose restaurants that are crowd favourites and are touted to have some of the best congee in the city. Which restaurant would be able to claim jook mastery?
Tai Hing Congee and Noodle House
Our first stop was Tai Hing Congee and Noodle House (8075 Park Road), just near Richmond Centre. The strip mall has seen better days; our server mentioned that it’s probably slated for construction in a few years. Tai Hing itself is a small, plainly furnished space: a cheap and cheerful spot for a quick bite. The place opens at 7am (except for Thursdays when they’re closed) for those early risers who take their congee seriously. When we arrived just before 10am (I’m not quite so hard core), the restaurant was pretty busy, consisting of families, a few couples, and the occasional single diner reading a newspaper while enjoying their congee. It was obvious by the familiar interactions with the servers that many of them were regulars.
The menu features about a dozen or so congee options, ranging from one with pork blood to another with fresh prawns. My father went for sliced fish while I decided on a classic combo of preserved century egg and pork. I also asked our server for an order of youtiao or Chinese savoury doughnut. “Not ready,” she said, looking apologetic when she saw my look of disappointment. And I was indeed bitterly disappointed since the doughnuts are the perfect dunking accompaniment. How could I go without?
Fortunately, just before our bowls arrived, our server beamingly presented us with a plate of youtiao, explaining that they were “now ready.” I was beyond famished, so dug in. The doughnut arrived pre-sliced, revealing a fairly dense, yet springy interior to balance the crisp, golden outside. It tasted like deep fried bread dough.
The congee arrived shortly after in medium sized bowls, full almost to the brim with green onion garnish on top.
I took my first spoonful, testing for taste and texture. Flavour-wise, the congee was muted, serving more as a blank canvas for the ingredients within and any taste enhancers (e.g. white pepper, soy, vinegar, chili oil) I wanted to add.
The congee was quite thick in consistency, albeit still smooth, with rice grains still discernible. My bowl had big chunks of preserved egg, which added a needed jolt of saltiness to the congee.
Thinly sliced pork gave more savoury flavour, which I amped up with a drizzle of soy.
I also managed to sneak a spoonful of my dad’s order, which had smooth slices of white fish and slivers of ginger.
I dipped slices of the youtiao into the congee, liking the combo of the savoury deep fried flavour and the fairly bland taste of the rice porridge. All in all, it was a satisfying bowl.
Double Double Restaurant
By the time we arrived at Empire Centre, where Double Double (128-4600 No 3 Road) is located, the outdoor parking lot was already crowded with cars. We eventually found a spot in the multi-level lot and went to try our second bowl of congee of the morning. Whereas Tai Hing has an endearing hole-in-the-wall appeal, Double Double is a large, bright room with a lively vibe.
Pretty much all the two-person tables were taken, so the server who greeted us asked if we were willing to share a table with other diners. “Sure!” we said. Who needs space when you’re hunched over your congee bowl? Shortly after, a young couple came in and sat down across from us (I have to admit that I surrepticiously watched what they ordered). The selection at Double Double is impressive, with over two dozen congee versions on the menu, including ones with fresh oysters, crispy minced beef, shredded BBQ duck, and mixed fungus. I went for the preserved egg and pork again for a direct comparison with Tai Hing’s version while my father ordered pork stomach and pork balls. The congee is available in bowls and in a large sharing size. I noticed that most of the families around us ordered the group portion and then split a bunch of side dishes.
Basically, every table in the room had an order of the Chinese doughnut, a good clue that it’s a kitchen specialty. The youtiao was addictive and much better than Tai Hing’s due to its light and fluffy texture and ultra flaky exterior. Our server presented the long doughnut whole and then used scissors to cut it into segments in front of us.
I could have happily just eaten the golden doughnut, but just after we had finished one piece, our congee was before us. I have to admit a bias since I’m a fan of thinner versus chunky congee. Those who like thicker congee would prefer Tai Hing’s version. Double Double’s was creamy in texture and more soup-like. The congee also had strong pork flavour, so I didn’t need to add anything to it, but could take pleasure in the unadulterated congee taste.
I liked the fried peanuts on top, which gave a nuttiness and crunch to the eating experience. The salted pork was very flavourful as well, working well with the pork-y rice porridge, in addition to the preserved egg.
I tried a bit of my father’s congee, enjoying the tenderness of the pork stomach, and the pork balls, which were finely ground and had good springy bounce to them.
The couple dining at our table seemed to be relishing their chicken congee, in addition to the sweet and savoury doughnuts they had ordered (they also had shrimp rice rolls). They were finishing their congee as we waved good-bye and headed out, bellies full.
Overall, two rounds of congee in a row truly did equate to double the comfort. While I liked the homespun environment of Tai Hing, and fans of chunky congee might favour their version, I personally give the edge to Double Double for their more flavourful jook, as well as their crispy and airy doughnut.