Nearly four years ago, while eating jok on the other side of the world, I pondered a lifelong question: how do they get that rice so dang creamy?
DP and I stumbled across this little jok stand the first week we lived in Chiang Mai. That was a surreal period of our lives: he was there sharpening his Muay Thai knowledge, and I had a public health internship at an HIV/AIDS non-profit called RakDek. Of course, we did our share of sightseeing and eating too (mostly eating). There are probably a lot of really amazing jok stands in Chiang Mai, but this was the first one we came across, and we were loyal to it. You have to get up very early to find a good bowl of jok in these parts, because once the giant pot runs out, they close up shop. We used to roam the streets in search of a place still open at 10am before we finally figured it out. Later, some friends introduced us to the Jok Sompet, which served the dish (among other Thai fare) late into the night. Without that sense of fleeting opportunity, however, it just wasn’t the same. Plus, everyone knows the best food comes out of obscure holes-in-the-wall.
Our favorite jok stand was across the street from Kawila Boxing Stadium; next door is a popular fresh market. A lady and her husband took turns serving customers. They spoke zero English. Do you want one egg or two? they asked me, in Thai. Pork meatballs? I took mine without the latter, even though I enjoyed watching her shape them: she holds something resembling a piping bag in one hand, gently squeezing the pureed pork while simultaneously using a spoon in the other hand to shoot little oblong balls into hot water. So much deftness and agility were involved in those tiny movements.
I have no idea where the dish originated, but Asian people can do some amazing things with rice. It is out of necessity, I suppose. I think the Chinese have their own version: congee. (Or maybe they are one and the same?) My mom says the grains used for jok are “broken,” which changes the consistency when they are cooked. I can make a decent bowl but it never comes out quite as creamy. “Stir, stir, stir a lot,” Mom says is the key. The creaminess separates it from another Lao dish, kao piaak – literally, “wet rice.” I think I have the stirring part down, but my rice-to-broth ratio still needs work.
Jok is the perfect breakfast: simple and clean, traditionally served with an egg poached right in the piping hot rice. This technique is another one that is ever so delicate. At home, Mom includes condiment dishes of pickled cucumber and cabbage on the side. Fresh, julienned ginger is also nice, particularly when you have a stomach ache.
In a pinch, Mom used to buy me these little Knorr packets that are less nutritious than the made-from-scratch but so. good. They come in a variety of flavors. DP and I started buying them at the 7-Eleven in Thailand, for those mornings when we just didn’t feel like waking up early to get to the other side of town. One or two of these, made with hot water from our electric kettle, and a cup of 3-in-1 makes a beautiful morning.