A hearty dish to set before the king

New Statesman
Congee, a savoury Chinese rice porridge (PHOTO: Gastronomy Domine)

The large clay pot of chicken congee is simmering on the stove, emitting a warm and ravishing aroma. In another ten minutes, the family will be sitting around the table, sharing, laughing and reminiscing. This is a regular weekend scene in my household: a congee feast.

Rice porridge is popular across Asia – from Korea and Japan to Vietnam and Malaysia. The word “congee” is believed to have originated from the ancient Tamil people in India and northern Sri Lanka; their word “kanji” refers to “porridge made with rice”. In China, southerners who speak Cantonese call it joak, while it is xifan in Mandarin. As far back as the Zhou Dynasty (1,046-256BC), our ancestors made congee with different bases: wheat, barley, corn, tapioca and sorghum. However, rice has always been the most desired grain. In times of famine (of which there were many), congee’s adaptability saved many lives.

The dish makes an early appearance in literature in 636AD, when the Book of Zhou, an official history of the Northern Zhou Dynasty, records: “Emperor Huang Di was the first to cook congee with millet as the ingredient.” It was then a food of the nobility, eaten with gold-tipped ivory chopsticks. The food’s popularity quickly spread beyond the court and it became a staple.

Its popularity must be due to its simplicity. Grab a cup of rice, add ten times the amount of water, bring it to the boil in a pot and let it cook on medium-high heat for an hour or so and you have yourself a pot of the very basic, plain-rice congee. (For those who like their congee thick, simply use more rice or put in less water.) Although congee can be served plain, more usually, ingredients such as meat, seafood and vegetables are added into the pot for flavour and texture.

Since the Ming Dynasty, which began in 1368, joak has been thought of as having medicinal properties: much like chicken soup, it has become a tasty remedy prepared by mothers and grandmothers.

In practical terms, congee is the end result of time plus heat, which softens and breaks down grains of rice. The rendered liquid, known as rice milk, is easy to consume and digest, making it perfect for babies, the old and the sick. Many Chinese mothers feel that when cow’s milk is not available, rice milk is the best alternative.

Chinese penicillin

According to the traditional Chinese medical system, the well-being of our bodies comes from balanced energy and healthy blood flow. A good yin and yang balance can be gained by eating the right food at the right time. Quite often, our bodies need a break from heavy eating and excessive consumption of alcohol and this is when a meal or two of warm congee can be beneficial.

It is easy to turn a pot of congee into a full meal by complementing it with morsels and noodles. Often there are bowls of colourful garnishes and sauces: green onions, coriander, preserved root vegetable, chilli sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil and white ground pepper. Crispy youtiao (deepfried long bread or salty Chinese doughnut) is a popular item that goes extremely well with the soup-like joak – it’s like dunking doughnuts in coffee.

Although it originates from Asia, congee has spread far and wide. It reached Portugal centuries ago as canja de galinha (literally, chicken congee) and is still considered the best remedy for a cold. In Greece, people make rice soup with lemon and chicken, and in northern Europe it is porridge or gruel.

Yet no matter what each culture calls it or how it prepares it, the idea is the same: warm, nourishing and comforting. I still make my pot of joak and share it with my family.

Stephanie Yuen writes about food in Chinese and English at beyondchopsticks.com