Congee: Asia's Bowl full of Comfort

(Published in Flavor & Fortune Spring 2002)

Rice, the staple for more than half of the world’s population, has truly shaped and defined the varied cuisines of Asia. The relationship the rice eaters of Asia have with rice is deep-rooted and imbued with meaning and importance. In these parts of the world, rice is not only the integral part of the meals; it is also part of religious rituals and celebrations as well as social ceremonies. Centuries-old traditions dictate its cultivation, harvesting and consumption. Asians celebrate rice from planting to harvesting in various colorful festivals. Ceremonial and religious aspects of rice planting and harvesting are not so important to modern day city dwellers, still rice as food continues to maintain its impressive significance in life of most Asian cultures.

Rice is revered as divine in Asia and it is typically eaten at least two or three times a day. A meal without rice is not considered a full meal and this important grain is often served in the plainest possible way. The variety of dishes that accompany rice may be elaborate and exquisite, but rice by itself is too precious to be treated as an ingredient. Naturally people tend to consider the rice they are used to eating as the most delicious variety. Chinese prefer the long or medium grain, non-aromatic rice. The Japanese and the Koreans prefer slightly glassy and translucent medium or short-grain sticky rice. The Thai and Vietnamese prefer the fragrant jasmine rice or long-grain sticky rice. In Bhutan the staple is slightly sticky red rice. While northern India is famed for its aromatic basmati rice, the rice eating populations in the south and east India prefer medium and long grain, non-aromatic parboiled rice.

Although Asian cooking styles often include elaborate methods of cooking, sometimes with unusual ingredients, the most impressive similarity between these ancient cuisines is the simplicity of some of their tastiest rice dishes. All over Asia there are various one-dish meals of thick rice soup cooked with plenty of water or broth that can be flavored with a variety of toppings and condiments. In China this dish is most often called Jook or Congee. It has several different names in other parts of Asia. But, by whatever name it is called congee is pure comfort food. It is easy to prepare and most satisfying at any hour in any season. There is no limit to what can be added to congee. It can contain fish, meat, vegetables, herbs, spices, grains, condiments, broths and stocks, as this dish is most accommodating. Babies are raised on it and elderly and invalids prefer it for its nutritional value and ease of digestion.

Chinese Style: Jook or congee is a dish relished in every corner of China. In rural China it is still a very important food. In days past, this porridge-like food was not just the food of the peasants; it was enjoyed by all classes of people. It was even served at banquets among the Chaozhou people. In China congee dates back 1000 B.C. when thick grain based gruels flavored with a variety of ingredients were popular. Historically congee was made with several grains – wheat, barley, sorghum, millet, tapioca or corn. A Qing dynasty manual on porridge by Huang Yungu lists 237 different ways of preparing congee. Other grains were mostly used in northern China where they grew abundantly. While in the south, from Shanghai to what is now known as Guangzhou (Canton), rice is the preferred grain.

There is an interesting story about the invention of congee in China. A miserly man was once faced with the dilemma of serving rice to ten guests. He instructed his cook to stretch the rice by adding more water to the rice pot. He told the cook “ every time I call out your name be sure to pour more water to the pot”. Soon the host forgot about his instructions and called out the cook’s name several times for different reasons. Every time the cook heard his name called out, he poured another ladle of water to the rice pot. Needless to say by the time the guests arrived the rice had become rice porridge.

This story illustrates that basic congee is rice cooked in excess broth or water, often ten to twelve parts of liquid for one part rice. But this story does not point out that some congees are sweet in taste while others are savory and more elaborate versions can include pork meatballs to barbecued pig’s feet. Traditionally basic congee is served along with preserved eggs and threads of fresh ginger for taste, shredded lettuce for contrasting crunch, and fresh cilantro and scallions for fragrance.

In Hong Kong congee can be served for breakfast, lunch or dinner. A fancy rendition at an evening meal can be a lobster congee or dragon shrimp jook. While some Cantonese prefer it sweetened with rock sugar, people of Shanghai like theirs served savory with cabbage. In Fujian, this rice porridge is often made with glutinous rice while that made with fermented red rice is a specialty of its capital, Fuzhou. Sweet Wine Rice Soup, a sweet congee made in a particular and precise way, is a classic from Shanghai and is fortified with poached eggs and boiled marble sized rice balls; the latter made with glutinous rice powder. In this region, Lotus Seed Congee is prepared with lotus seeds and glutinous rice and finished with addition of sugar and served as a snack.

Congee is not just a dish served any meal; it is also a base for therapeutic treatment. As such it was prevalent in China as early as pre-Qin period (221-207 B.C.). Congee with asparagus is believed to be a diuretic and was also used to reduce cholesterol. Ginger congee was used to settle the stomach, and reduce nausea and considered a cure for indigestion and diarrhea. For ailments of the respiratory system and fever, one recommended medicine was Pear Congee. Congee with black sesame seeds was used to improve lactation in nursing mothers. Spinach Congee was used as a sedative, while Chicken or Lamb Congees were valued to strengthen a weakened constitution.

These days, in Taiwan and wherever Chinese live, they enjoy Gour Bah, a sizzling rice soup. It is often made with baby shrimp. Gour Bah is the hardened rice layer left at the bottom of the rice pot. It becomes the base of any Gour Bah dish. A combination of the sweet small shrimp and tomatoes give the soup an added texture and taste. Deep-fried Gour Bah, also called rice cakes are placed in a soup bowl or a tureen and the soup is served over them; they sizzle with this addition of liquid. This soup is also be made with crab and other seafood caught not from the sea.

Variations of Congee in Other Asian Cuisines: In Korea their rice soup called Jott Jook uses ground rice pulverized to a silken texture before cooking. Ground barley or lentils may be added while cooking, and the soup is garnished with pine nuts and sliced pitted dates. In another sweeter version, they take equal portions of rice and barley and toast them on a dry skillet, then pulverize the toasted ingredients and stir them into a large pitcher of water. This mixture is sweetened with sugar and served over ice in summer.

In Japan rice soup is made from both raw rice and leftover cooked rice. Okayu is the Japanese rice soup served to invalids. They use raw rice and cook it with plenty of water until the rice is very soft. Chopped scallions, carrots or Japanese fish cakes are added to the soup before serving. Japanese peasants as a way saving leftover rice created Zosui, rice soup with cooked rice. They take cooked rice and combine it with fish stock and continue cooking until the rice is very soft. Slices of carrots, spinach and mushrooms or shrimp or scallops are added to the pot and simmered for another five minutes before an egg is added to the pot. This cooks as it is stirred in and the soup is garnished with scallions, salt, and soy sauce.

In Philippines congee is cooked the same way as in China, however, they serve it with a salty topping of fried salted fish or cooked chicken. In Vietnam, their rice soup is Chao Bo and it is loaded with tender rice and ground beef. This soup is not only eaten at breakfast, it is also the last course in a Bo Bay Mon, beef-seven-ways-meal. To prepare it, shallots and rice are stir fried until they are translucent, then cooked in plenty of water. When the rice is cooked, ground beef is sprinkled over it and cooked for some time longer. This soup is seasoned with fish sauce and se4ved garnished with peanuts, garlic oil, cilantro and scallions. In another version, rice and small pieces of shrimp are cooked in a lightly flavored broth and then garnished with roasted and chopped peanuts. Traditionally, it is served with a side of a hot Vietnamese table sauce for extra flavoring. They also prepare a sweetened version made with sticky rice and taro. It is called Che Khoai Mon. To make it, rice is cooked until soft and pieces of taro or yucca and some sugar and salt are added and then simmered until throughly cooked. Fresh coconut milk is stirred in and it is served with coconut cream drizzled on top.

In Thailand, rice soup is called Khao Tom. Fragrant jasmine rice is used for their version and it is cooked in chicken broth flavored with fresh ginger and fish sauce. When the rice is cooked, shredded chicken pieces are stirred in. A steaming bowl of Khao Tom is served with a platter of chili paste, Chinese pickled vegetables, chopped shallots, ginger, coriander leaves, minced garlic and dry-roasted and chopped peanuts and a pitcher of soy sauce.

In Myanmar, China’s neighbor towards the Himalayan rim, rice soup is made with toasted rice and fish. The rice is toasted in a dry skillet to a light brown color before cooking. It is additionally colored yellow with turmeric. Garlic, lemongrass and ginger add enhanced flavorings. This soup is served warm with deep-fried scallions on top, and preferred warm, not hot.

The Karans are native Burmese tribe who lives in lower Myanmar on the border of Thailand. They prepare a rice soup called Tata Pan. It has an interesting and imaginative flavor. As some of the others, it prepared by first toasting the raw rice in a dry skillet. When light brown in color, they crush it coarsely before cooking, add plenty of water and pieces of boneless pork, sliced bamboo shoots, salt, shrimp paste, shrimp sauce, crushed fresh ginger and garlic, turmeric, paprika and black pepper.

In Bhutan, located on the eastern ridges of the Himalayas, and to the west of China, rice soup is called Tukpa. It is loved for breakfast on cold mornings. Pork bones with meat on them is cooked in plenty of water, the rice is added to the pot after half an hour along with chopped onions, fresh ginger, chili powder, salt and a little oil. All this is simmered uncovered over low heat for an hour or so and served hot.

In Sikkim close to Tibet and China, their rice soup is called Phitoo and is prepared by cooking rice with excess water along with boneless chicken pieces and crumbled farmer’s cheese. They flavor their rice soup with butter, chopped onions and fresh ginger. After an hour of simmering when the porridge has thickened, they stir in some soy sauce.

In ancient India, fresh and fermented rice soups were popular for breakfast in several regions. Kashyapa Samhita, an ancient Sanskrit text, describes medicinal rice soup made with parched rice, long pepper, dried ginger and pomegranates. The sour rice gruel called Kanjika was made by fermenting rice porridge. It was popular among ancient seafaring Dravidians of South India who served it with deep fried lentil cakes called Vatakas. In Bengal, in eastern India the rice soup is served cold. They make it using boiled rice that is covered with cold water and kept overnight. They like it served with curried eggplant and fish as accompaniments. In south India, the rice soup called kanji has a very similar sounding name to the word congee. In olden days, it was the preferred breakfast dish among farming and seafaring families and it is served warm with salt and cooked red beans and considered a staple food.

The best kanji is made with Podiari or broken parboiled rice. When rice is hulled manually it results in several broken rice grains. This broken rice is rinsed and cleaned and added to a large pot of boiling water and cooked until very soft. Then the pot is covered so a thin film does not form on the top and it is set it aside for half an hour before serving. During this time the rice softens and absorb more water. Just before serving, stir the kanji gently and serve in a shallow bowl, with salt sprinkled on top. Accompaniments include ghee, yogurt, fried pappadams, deep-fried dehydrated vegetables and rice crispers, fresh or toasted coconut chutney, puzukku (vegetables cooked with fresh coconut and cumin) or cooked red beans.

Congee is not just a staple comfort food and/or a breakfast food. It is also prepared and used for religious ceremonies and festivals. A Chinese congee, called Laba Zhou, is named to honor the eighth day of the twelfth moon, the day Buddha received enlightenment. On this day Buddhist temples prepare this congee with cereals, peas, dates, chestnuts, lotus seeds and dried fruits. When this dish is prepared on other days it is called eight-treasures-porridge.

Thingyan Htamin- Water festival rice soup is prepared in Myanmar to celebrate Hint San, Burmese New Year. It is a time for cleansing the body and mind for the coming year. To prepare this soup, a piece of bone is burned inside a dry wok to produce smoke. The pan is covered to extinguish the flame and generate more smoke. The bone is removed and cooked rice and cold water are added to the pan, it is then covered and kept aside for fifteen minutes. The soup is served at room temperature along with mango salad and crisp fried dried fish in separate dishes.

In Kerala in Southern India the bounty of tropical summer is celebrated in a festival called Vishu. It is believed that what one sees first on Vishu morning influences one’s fortunes for the rest of the year. Vishu Kanji is a special rice soup traditionally served but once a year to celebrate this festival. It is made with a combination of parboiled and long grain rices and puliavarakka, a lima bean type legume with a slightly sour taste, and cooked in coconut milk. The beans give tanginess and a bite to this soup.

In parts of south India, as girls attain puberty they are given a four-day coming-of-age ceremony called Thirandu Kalyaanam. On the third day, guests are served Paalkanji, a rice soup cooked in milk and sweetened with sugar. Traditionally the soup is served in thadas, which are bowls made of plantain stems held together with the stems of coconut palm leaves. The soupspoons to eat this rice soup are made of folded jackfruit tree leaves pinned with stems of coconut palm leaves. Garnishes are served on a piece of banana leaf on the side and include fresh coconut slices, Indian brown sugar chunks and deep-fried pappadams. In old days, Kanji was served for supper on every new moon in south India and feeding rice or rice soup to the poor is considered the ultimate good deed. It was also offered to the poor in observance of annual Memorial Day of departed family members.

Rice gruel, a dish with ancient origins, remains popular in most of Asia. There are several myths about its consumption. Since it requires less rice than plain boiled rice to feed the same number of people, it is considered a poor man’s meal in China. Because of this on the first day of Chinese New Year people eat cooked fluffy rice for all meals. To eat rice porridge on this day is thought to mean hard times for the future.

In conclusion, several authentic Chinese and Southeast Asian restaurants feature rice gruel dishes on their menus. These dishes are also found in Chinese cookbooks; as a matter of fact there are a couple of Chinese cookbooks dedicated to just this food and many of its variations. Rare, however, you may find an Indian restaurant offering rice porridge, and, a recipe for this dish is seldom found in an Indian cookbook. I believe that is because it is considered a poor man’s meal, not worth mentioning or including on a menu.

The range of ingredients used in preparing rice soup certainly varies with geographic locations. Overall, one could generalize that in China, eggs, chicken, pork, ginger, scallions, Chinese parsley and sometimes lotus seed add flavor and fragrance to their non-medicinal congees. Island nations such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Philippines, all flavor theirs with foods of the sea.

In Korea, rice soup is enhanced with dates, pine nuts and sugar. The Japanese flavor it with mushrooms, scallops and shrimp while the Vietnamese prepare theirs with beef, root vegetables, fish sauce and roasted peanuts. In Thailand, they prefer theirs made with fragrant rice, shallots, chili paste and garlic. Rice gruels from the Himalayan rim countries of Myanmar and Bhutan show influences of Chinese and Indian and use garlic, ginger, shrimp paste, pork and bamboo shoots to reflect the Chinese influence and turmeric, black pepper and paprika to show the Indian connection. And, in India, rice soups incorporate dairy products, coconut milk and various spices. These differences not withstanding, in Asia, rice porridge remains the comfort food of millions with flavor differences, from one country to another.

AMMINI RAMACHANDRAN