Leaders of the Bland

Edible proof that the ultimate critical kiss-off isn’t all bad.

One of the worst criticisms a critic can bestow is the term "bland." Isn't the reason we spend money at restaurants to revel in the flavors the cooks are capable of evoking? Hence, a bland dish is a bad dish.Then again, I've spent the past few weeks thinking about when bland means good.Bland is the baseline. Not only is it the natural state of most foodstuffs, it's an important component in every meal. Whether we're talking about mashed potatoes, rice, pounded cassava, tortillas, or baguettes, bland is the belly-filling component of the meat-starch-veg triumvirate. The bland section of the plate is designed to be the negative space, napped over in gravy or dipped into kaleidoscopic, vivid, tongue-blasting positives. Some of the world's spiciest dishes overwhelm us Westerners because we don't realize they're meant to be diluted by handfuls of bland.Lately, though, I've been eating bland dishes that aren't negative space. They're not meant to be covered over or colored in. They're positive space, un-selfconsciously minimalist—and they have the sole purpose of soothing and sustaining. They're children's food, rainy December food.Most Asian languages have their own word for congee, such as juk in Cantonese and Korean, kanji in Tamil, and chao in Vietnamese, but the ugliest name of them all is English: rice gruel, a word that now belongs to Dickens novels. The word gruel conjures an image of watery pap slopped into dirty wooden bowls and eaten with the speed associated with hyenas devouring a fetid corpse.But as a way to use leftover rice, congee is both sensible and easy to digest. It's easy to upscale porridge by simmering the rice in stock (at brunch, Monsoon sometimes uses oxtail broth), or by pulling out every bottle from the condiment tray to doctor the porridge into something fiery, salty, and sharp. But the purest congee is the one based on two ingredients: white rice and water.A few months ago, Voracious contributor Angela Garbes directed me to the stone bowl congee ($4.50 and up) at Homestyle Hong Kong Cafe, across the street from Hing Hay Park in the International District. The only decorations in the tiny blue-and-white room are the crowd of people blocking the door and the fog patterns on the windows. The menu simply offers variations on a few homey dishes: clay pots baked with rice and a few pieces of meat, spindly wheat noodles in chicken broth, and stone pot congee.The congee bowl comes straight from the stove, and you can see the rice dissolving into pure starch around the pot's edge, where it continues to bubble, forming a liquid ruffle and sending up a toasted-rice aroma. I ordered one classic, pork and century egg (sometimes called thousand-year egg), spooning up tender slices of meat and chunks of obsidian-colored egg with a deep, almost musty taste.I preferred the second congee I tried, an even more delicately flavored dish with fish slices. The mild whitefish almost faded into the porridge, leaving me startled by the sharp crunch of every green onion and the flash of every ginger thread that slipped into the bowl of the spoon. The texture was satiny and heavy on the tongue—not gummy, but filling. As I swallowed, I could sense the ghosts of the individual grains brushing past.The Koreans have an even blander, more nourishing white soup: sul lung tang (often written seolleongtang), or ox-bone broth. Cookbook author Hi Soo Shin Hepinstall writes that the name may come from the altar on which kings made an annual sacrifice of a cow, afterward serving a soup made from its bones.It's the house specialty at Original Sul Lung Tang, a newish Lynnwood restaurant located in the same strip mall as Olympic Spa. But the specialty is only obvious to people who can read the giant Hangeul characters on the restaurant's yellow sign; the English translation of its name is "Korean B.B.Q." Sure, there's barbecue, and sure, it's serviceable. But item #1 on the menu, both numerically and symbolically, is sul lung tang ($7.99). Ever simmering, ever reducing in a great steel cauldron, this is the vat of beef bones and oxtails that the owners claim cooks for a minimum of 24 hours.Each bowl comes with coarse sea salt, black pepper, green onions, radish kimchi in a pool of its crimson juices, and rice. As my spoon traveled through the opaque white broth, up swirled slices of beef brisket and pale wheat noodles (for a dollar more, the cooks add tongue and tripe). I doctored the soup with salt (the coarse salt dissolves slowly, so stir for 10–15 seconds before you taste), added a few shakes of pepper, tipped in some rice and some onions, and dunked a couple of radishes in the bowl, pouring enough of the radish juice to give the broth the palest peach tint. Each time I sipped the soup, what I tasted most strongly was the milky, soft, bland taste of bone—blandness so powerful it overwhelmed kimchi!The soup tasted like the last, most closely guarded molecules of flavor locked inside a 700-pound animal. I couldn't help but walk out fortified.Not that long ago, I had to stand on tiptoe or bend down to reach the whole-grain breads at QFC. But these days they've moved to Main Street—aka eye level—pushing white bread to the edge of town.I'm thankful to the USDA, nutritionists, and hippies for making cheap commercial white bread unpopular. In fact, for urban liberals, "white bread" has become a symbol of everything wrong with the industrialized American diet. But in the white-bread purge, something was lost. As great as Seattle's crusty pains de campagne are, and as nutty and full-bodied as our whole-grain breads taste when they come out of the toaster, nothing makes a proper grilled-cheese sandwich or bread-and-butter pudding like plain white bread.I grew up on homemade white bread, from either my mother's hands or the local Amish bakery. I like good white bread.North Hill Bakery on Capitol Hill sells loaves of good white bread on Thursdays for $4.50 (whole-wheat's available every day). The bakery's loaf proves that proper white bread has a presence. North Hill's Thursday white isn't a snow-colored sponge that you can pinch into hard pellets, or something that barely holds together as you lift it from bag to toaster. Rather, it has a delicate but firm crumb—one that's even a little yellowed from egg yolk—and a clean, yeasty smell.When you toast it for breakfast, it may not taste like the glory of the fields or the virtue of proper nutrition. It tastes like butter and browned wheat, bland flavors so perfect there's no need for honey or jam.jkauffman@seattleweekly.com

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