Growing up reluctantly tolerating Thailand’s thick humidity, Bangkok-born Sutinee Suntivatana could never understand the fascination with steaming hot congee.
Now, she owns Melbourne’s first lockdown-born congee delivery service—Jok Club.
“I used to hate congee so much when I was young!” Jok Club owner and head chef Sutinee laughs. “My dad would always go to the shops in the morning and bring home warm congee for breakfast. I could never understand why we would want to eat hot things in hot weather.”
Congee, otherwise known as jok (pronounced ‘jock’ in Thailand), is a dense rice porridge eaten in countries including Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, China and the Philippines.
“Jok is usually eaten for breakfast or dinner,” Sutinee explains. “But in Bangkok there’s really only one type of jok: ground pork with liver and egg. That’s the one recipe.”
When Sutinee moved to Melbourne’s cooler climate in 2006, she found herself craving jok. It’s partly why her highly successful Carlton café, Humble Rays, featured a rich duck congee for the last three years. Complete with tender confit duck leg, ginger, spring onions, shiitake mushrooms and an onsen egg; there was uproar when it was removed from Humble Rays’ summer menu.
“Customers would want to order it in 40-degree weather,” Sutinee says. “That’s when I realised people want to have it all year round, any time of the year, any time of the day.” And so, Jok Club was born.
Sutinee was close to signing a lease in the city when COVID hit. The revenue from Humble Rays evaporated, so she tabled her brick and mortar jok dream (complete with whole seafood and oversized Instagrammable bowls) in favour of a dedicated delivery service.
“Because of COVID, people can’t afford something that luxurious and expensive,” Sutinee explained. “So, we went for something more basic but loveable.”
Jok Club’s congee is cooked fresh each morning, using jasmine rice and a clear chicken broth made from fresh bones. Jok is seasoned with salt, white pepper, and white soy sauce. Free of MSG and sugar, a piping hot bowl of jok is ideal for absorbing flavours from Jok Club’s rich toppings.
There is traditional mince pork, pork liver and egg jok, but the most popular menu item is slow-cooked beef short ribs. Ribs are char-grilled and slow-cooked in master stock for six hours.
“We wanted to serve ribs whole on the bone,” Sutinee says. “Like Flintstone food!”
The flimsiest of chopsticks will easily pull apart these tender ribs. Sticky sweet pork belly is equally as satisfying, even more so when slurped up with a ladleful of jok and buttery onsen egg.
Vegetarians need not worry—with a popular soy mushroom, braised tofu and fried beancurd jok on the menu.
All jok is served with Jok Club’s small-batch chilli oil, spring onion, ginger and toasted sesame. Jok, toppings, and all condiments are meticulously individually packed for the ultimate DIY at home.
Sutinee has recently added two dry noodle dishes, homemade siu mei and take-home jars of chilli oil to Jok Club’s offering.
“I believe you can’t stick to one thing this year because of COVID—you can’t be stubborn,” Sutinee says. “You have to give to the community and to the people around you, we have to help each other.”
She takes the commitment seriously. Many of her previous employees have moved home since March, and from her depleted team of ten, only two are eligible for JobKeeper. Jok Club and takeaway coffees at Humble Rays keeps everyone employed and busy.
“We don’t earn much,” Sutinee says. “But I always say to them: ‘don’t cook at home, just eat here and take the food home. Take some to your friends, your housemates, your family’, because that’s what we can do.”
You can order from Jok Club via Line, Easi or their website. Jok Club will continue operating as a delivery and takeaway-only service once Melbourne lockdown restrictions ease.
For more on Melbourne's food scene, head to our Food & Drink section.
Image credit: supplied