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Rice is Life 

Country braised rice with a little of everything

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Photo by Wendy Chan

For many Asian people, rice is a staple in their diet. We often say, "Rice is life." Many older Chinese still greet each other with, "Have you eaten rice yet?" I like my rice steamed, fried, braised, in soup or sweetened in a dessert. Lately, l have been trying to eat healthier by adding brown, red or black rice to my white rice — it hasn't been too bad.

Last week, we had a fundraiser at the Elks Lodge with a few of the Eureka Emblem Club members. Country braised rice was on the menu and the event was a success. This is one of my favorite dishes from my hometown, usually eaten during the Lantern Festival, which falls on the 15th day of the first lunar month. I used to look forward to it when l was a kid. The mouthwatering smell of my mom cooking fried dried shrimp, lap cheong sausage and Chinese bacon filling in our tiny kitchen, and the rapid chopping sounds of my dad cutting up kohlrabi in our dining room are fond memories l cherish still.

For my family, the kohlrabi is the star for this dish — sweet and crunchy, a celebration of the winter harvest in my hometown. We anticipated this special meal all year. We called it "oil rice," in Chinese, an auspicious meal for a rich and fat year to come. I know the name is not very appetizing for some, but I believe it is called that because the ingredients are stir fried in oil. Believe me, the dish is not oily at all. To me, it's kind of healthy: You have meat, seafood and vegetables all in one dish. To write this recipe, I renamed it "braised rice," which feels like a better fit in English. However, when l talk to my family, we still refer it as "oil rice."

Because we live on the North Coast, you can make this dish anytime you wish. You can find almost all the ingredients in Asia's Best in Eureka (2085 Myrtle Ave., No. 8). If kohlrabi is not in season, you can substitute it with the peeled stems of broccoli. If you are allergic to dried shrimp, you can skip it or add chicken instead. For me, it's hard to make just a small pot. It's good for leftover or to share with others.

Country Braised Rice

I like to cook my rice on the stove for this dish because I love the crunchy, brown crust that forms at the bottom. This is the best part, as the bottom absorbs all the flavors of the other ingredients. Makes 3 to 4 servings. Ingredients:

2 cups uncooked sushi rice

3 cups cold water 1 to 2 kohlrabies 1 tablespoon vegetable oil 2 lap cheong (Chinese sausages) ¼ pound Chinese bacon 2 ounces dried shrimp 3 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked for few hours or overnight ½ teaspoon minced ginger 2 tablespoons minced persevered Chinese mustard root (optional) 2 tablespoons soy sauce 1 tablespoon oyster sauce 1 teaspoon sugar ¼ teaspoon white pepper Chopped green onions for garnish

Rinse the rice at least 2 times in a strainer. Pour the drained rice in a rice cooker or a pot, and add 3 cups of cold water. Set aside. I like to let my rice soak while getting other ingredients ready.

Soak the dried shrimp with warm water and set aside. Peel the kohlrabi and dice it so each piece is a bit smaller than a pea. You'll need to chop about 2 cups worth. Now chop the Chinese bacon and lap cheong, again, into pieces the size of peas. Drain the shiitake mushrooms, squeezing out excess water (reserve the liquid for cooking if you like), and dice to pea size. Lastly, drain the shrimp and, if they are larger, roughly chop them. Well, now, that's a lot of chopping. Hope you have patience and good knife skills.

Now start cooking the rice, either in the cooker or on the stovetop according to package directions. While the rice is cooking, warm a wok or pan over high heat, add oil and heat for 20 seconds. Add the ingredients in this order: dried shrimp, bacon and lap cheong. Stir fry and toss the proteins until you can see the bacon fat melting out, about 2 minutes. Then add the kohlrabi and sauté for few minutes before adding the ginger, shiitake, persevered mustard root (if using) and 1 cup of water or reserved shiitake soaking liquid. Cook over high heat for 3 minutes, until kohlrabi is little tender, yet still crunchy. Turn off the heat and season with soy sauce, oyster sauce, sugar and pepper. You might need to add 1 teaspoon salt if not using the persevered mustard root, which is super salty.

At this point, your rice should be almost ready (about 90 percent cooked). Pour the mixture onto the rice, replace the cover and let it simmer for couple more minutes. Before serving, mix the rice well, folding in all the fried ingredients and sauce. Garnish with green onions if you want to be fancy. Enjoy.

You can find Home Cooking with Wendy Chan (she/her) classes benefitting local charities on Facebook. Tickets for the May 28 benefit Spring Tea Party at 3 p.m. at the Jefferson Community Center are available at Eventbrite.com.

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