Congee Is the Food Equivalent of a Warm, Heated Gravity Blanket

By: Katy Spratte Joyce  | 

congee
Congee can be prepared in many different ways and topped with many different flavorings, like this Thai version, topped with century egg, crispy deep fried youtiao, crispy noodles and liver. Meowsom3/Shutterstock

Congee, sometimes spelled conjee, is a classic Chinese rice porridge often enjoyed for breakfast. But since it's likely not on the menus at your favorite breakfast or brunch spot, you probably don't know much about it unless you've traveled throughout Asia.

So to better understand this staple of Asian cuisine, we tapped two experts to dive into how to make it, what it tastes like and a bit of its history.

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What Is Congee?

Lisa Lim, Ph.D., is a Perth, Australia-based linguistics professor who writes on the topic of language for her "Language Matters" column for the South China Morning Post's Post Magazine. Lim says that congee — sometimes known as rice porridge — is a principal dish across Asia. But depending on where you're eating it, the dish can vary.

"It is essentially a preparation of rice (though there are versions using other grains or legumes) boiled in water (though some versions use milk or coconut milk), using grains that may be long or short, whole or broken," she says via email. "It can be served plain and accompanied by side dishes, ranging from salted duck egg or seafood, to pickled vegetables, to braised meat, or it can be cooked together with ingredients such as chicken, or preserved egg or herbs."

Names for this dish are just as varied, including: jūk (Cantonese), zhōu (Mandarin), muay (Hokkien, Teochew), chok/khao tom (Thai), cháo (Vietnamese), hsan pyok (Burmese), bâbâr (Khmer), bubur/kanji (Malay, Indonesian), lúgaw (Tagalog), and (o)kayu (Japanese) she says.

Deanna Ting, an award-winning Chinese American journalist, says congee is comfort food. "It's so comforting," she says via email. "To me, it's like the food equivalent of a warm, heated gravity blanket." Ting says she loves its simplicity; it leaves you with infinite possibilities to make the dish your own.

"The consistency of it varies and what's great is that when you cook it, you get to decide how thick or thin you want it to be by adjusting the ratio of liquid to rice," she says. "And you also get to personalize it with whatever toppings you want to add to it."

Ting also wants to make it clear that congee isn't just a Chinese dish. "So many different Asian cultures and cuisines have their own versions of congee," she explains. "Some of those include abalone-laced juk from Korea, Indonesian bubur ayam, Filipino arroz caldo, Vietnamese cháo and Indian kanji, just to name a few."

congee
Congee is part of a traditional Chinese style breakfast, but it's often eaten at any time of the day.
images by Tang Ming Tung/Getty Images

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Where Does the Word Congee Come From?

Lim says that although the dish tends to be associated with East Asian cuisine, the word congee actually has origins in South Asia — southern India and Sri Lanka to be specific. It's derived from the Tamil word kanji, from kanjī 'boilings,' referring to the water in which the rice has been boiled.

"The Portuguese encountered this in their colonies in Asia during their empire: The word was first documented as canje in Portuguese physician and botanist Garcia de Orta's 1563 'Coloquios dos Simples, e Drogas he Cousas Medicinais da India' – the earliest treatise on the medicinal and economic plants of India," Lim explains. "In Portuguese, canja today refers to a chicken broth. The word was later adopted into English from Portuguese. When the British started establishing colonies and trade networks of their own, they often took on words that had been adopted by the earlier European colonizers."

congee
As far as toppings go, you're limited only by what you like to eat, so experiment with different possibilities.
Job Narinnate/Shutterstock

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How to Make Congee

Making congee is similar to making rice, you just add a lot more liquid. Ting says she likes to make congee with a really good, flavorful stock, like chicken or beef, or even turkey stock. Her family traditionally makes turkey congee the day after Thanksgiving.

"Sometimes I'll rehydrate dried shiitake mushrooms, and I'll save the water and use it as a stock for congee, too," she says. "I also suggest using a rice that you prefer for congee. For me, that's usually jasmine rice." She says that water can be utilized as well, but stock provides lots more flavor so it's her preferred method.

Ting also says you can speed up the process using an Instant Pot. "I love making congee using my Instant Pot, but really all you need to make it at home is liquid, rice, a stove, a pot and some time," she says.

As far as toppings go, you're limited only by what you like to eat, and Ting says to experiment with different possibilities. But common congee toppings include soy sauce, a touch of sesame oil and/or chili oil; Lao Gan Ma chili crisp hot sauce; cilantro; scallions; white pepper; raw egg; and crispy pork rinds.

"I love slicing up youtiao (a Chinese cruller) and adding that to my congee, too," Ting says. "Fish sauce is also great. I've even made a bacon and egg congee before, just for fun, and honestly, it was pretty good! It never hurts to experiment and see what you like."

Lim says that, like Ting, congee for her is also a comfort food. "One of my favorites is pei dan chok — century egg porridge," she says. "But most homey is my grandmother's and my mum's prawn and pork meatball chok, which was a regular dish when I was growing up. If we were having other less 'substantial' dishes, my grandmother would always have chok on hand 'to fill in the holes in our stomach'! My mum and my sis still cook it regularly."

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Embracing Congee

Ting says she's starting to see more people embrace congee in unexpected places, like Copenhagen, Denmark, for example, where she says she had a fantastic chicken congee at a local porridge chain called Grød.

"Right now, one of my favorite chefs, Dirt Candy's Amanda Cohen, is making a savory oat congee with a fermented black bean broth," Ting says. "I hope I'll see more people experimenting with their own versions of congee and learning to love it as much as I do."

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