My unmatched Citizens! Today, the Imperial Majesty who ALONE is TFD shall be sharing with His loyal members of TFD Nation the secrets of a TRUE Chinese classic recipe – the humble rice porridge, aka congee, aka jook, which has delighted the palates of Kings and paupers alike all over the world for millennia! I previously posted my COVID-19 version of this dish at the height of the pandemic 2 ½ years ago, but THIS magnificent creation is what I prefer to enjoy as normal happenstance, and it is WORTHY of the refined and superlative palate that is mine ALONE to possess! 🙂
Despite congee being best known as a Chinese dish, I was surprised to learn in My research that the name of congee is in point of fact actually derived from an INDIAN word, despite congee’s probable origins in China! It is also enjoyed far beyond the borders and sphere of influence of China, even up to the European continent all the way to Portugal (where I am in fact leaving for in two days, so expect My next recipe to be a Portuguese one to celebrate My first visit to this magnificent country!).
Congee (KON-jee) is a type of rice porridge or gruel eaten predominately in Asian countries. It can be eaten plain, where it is typically served with side dishes, or it can be served with ingredients such as meat, fish, seasonings and flavorings, most often savory, but sometimes sweet. It is typically served as a meal on its own, especially for breakfast or people who are ill. Names for congee are as varied as the style of its preparation, but all are made with rice cooked as a softened porridge with a larger quantity of water than other types of cooked rice like pilaf or claypot rice.
The English word congee is actually derived from the Tamil word kanji (கஞ்சி). In Chinese, it is known as zhou (Chinese: 粥; pinyin: zhōu; Cantonese Yale: jūk). The earliest reference to rice porridge or congee can be traced back to the Chinese Zhou dynasty (circa 1000 BCE). It is also mentioned in the Book of Rites and noted in Pliny’s account of India circa 77 CE. Thick gruels made with wheat, barley, sorghum, millet, tapioca, and even corn were more common than rice in the original version found in northern China where these grains grew abundantly.
To prepare the dish, rice is boiled in a large amount of water until it softens significantly. Congee can be made in a pot or in a rice cooker. Some rice cookers have a “congee” setting, allowing it to be cooked overnight. The type of rice used can be either short- or long-grain, depending on what is available and regional cultural influences. Culture also often dictates the way congee is cooked and eaten.
In some cultures, congee is eaten primarily as a breakfast food or late supper; some may also eat it as a substitute for rice at other meals. It is often considered particularly suitable for the sick as a mild, easily digestible food. Because of this, it is commonly served as a staple meal for patients in healthcare facilities.
While plain congee is a staple dish in China, it is called congee only in Hong Kong English but is more commonly recognized as jūk (jook). Natively, plain congee is known by other local names such as báizhōu (Chinese: 白粥; lit. ‘white porridge’) in Central and Northern China. Another common Chinese name for it in the Mandarin dialect is xīfàn (Chinese: 稀飯; lit. ‘dilute rice’).
Chinese congees (Chinese: 粥; pinyin: zhōu; Cantonese Yale: jūk) vary considerably by region. For example, to make Cantonese congee, white rice is boiled in many times its weight in water for a long time until the rice breaks down and becomes a fairly thick, white porridge. Congees made in other regions may use different types of rice with different quantities of water, producing congees of different consistencies. It can be left watery, or cooked until it has a texture similar to Western oatmeal porridge.
Congee can also be made from brown rice, although this is less common and takes longer to cook. Congee made from other grains, such as cornmeal, millet, barley, and sorghum, is still common in the north of China where rice does not grow as well as other grains suited for a colder climate. Multigrain congee mixes are sold in the health food sections of Chinese supermarkets.
Savory congee, generally cooked with salt and often fresh ginger and other flavorful ingredients, is usually eaten with zhacai (pickled mustard greens), salted duck eggs, lettuce and dace (Chinese mud carp paste), bamboo shoots, youtiao, rousong, pickled tofu, wheat gluten, with other condiments, meats and organ meats including tripe and intestine, crab or thousand-year eggs. Other seasonings such as white pepper and soy sauce may be added after the congee is cooked. Grilled or steamed and deboned fish may be mixed in to provide a different texture.
Plain congee is commonly eaten with youtiao (lightly-salted fried dough sticks) as breakfast in many areas in China. Congee with mung beans is usually eaten with sugar, as is red bean congee, or in Laba congee. Besides being an everyday meal, congee is considered to be food therapy for the unwell. Ingredients can be determined by their supposed therapeutic value as well as flavor. It is also used to feed infants.
The origin of congee is unknown, but from many historical accounts, it was usually served during times of famine, or when numerous patrons visited the temples, as a way to stretch the rice supply to feed more people. The autumn porridge festival is celebrated by villagers eating congee together on that day, the meaning being that they pray for everything to go smoothly and to build a good relationship with the neighborhood.
Congee is found all over the Asian continent (and as noted earlier, even in Europe), as noted below:
Kayu (粥), or often okayu (お粥) is the name for the type of congee eaten in Japan, which typically uses water to rice ratios of 5:1 or 7:1 and is cooked for about 30 minutes. Juk (죽; 粥) is a Korean category for porridges made by boiling rice or other grains or legumes, such as beans, sesame, nuts, and pumpkin, with much more water than grains. In Taiwan, congee is known as xifan (稀飯) or zhou（粥), or more commonly known in Taiwanese, muê (糜). In Malaysia, congee is known as porridge or bubur.
In Cambodia, congee is called babor (បបរ), in Indonesia, congee is called bubur and in Laos, congee is called khao piak, literally “wet rice” (Lao: ເຂົ້າປຽກ). Lugaw is the Filipino generic term for rice gruel, while in Singapore, Teochew porridge or Singapore-style porridge is a version of Singapore congee. In Thai cuisine, rice congee, known as Chok or Jok (Thai: โจ๊ก, a loanword from Min Nan Chinese), is often served as breakfast.
In Vietnam, rice congee, called cháo, is sometimes cooked with pandan leaves or Asian mung bean. In its simplest form (plain rice porridge, known as cháo hoa), it is a food for times of famine and hardship to stretch the rice ration. In Sri Lanka, several types of congee are known as kenda in Sinhalese. Sinhala people use congee as a breakfast, a side dish, an accessory to indigenous medical therapies, and a sweet.
Congee is found throughout India, going by different names and forms dating all the way back to antiquity – according to the Indian writer Madhur Jaffrey, kanji is, or derives from, a Tamil word for “boiling”. In the Buddhist Yāgu Sutta of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, the Buddha recommends eating rice porridge, “yāgu”: “There are these five benefits in rice porridge. What five? It stills hunger, dispels thirst, settles wind, cleans out the bladder, and promotes the digestion of the remnants of undigested food. These are the five benefits of rice porridge.”.
In Portugal, a traditional soup made of rice and chicken meat is named canja or Canja de galinha. The Portuguese likely picked up the dish from their colonies in Western/Southern India or Sri Lanka; where the soup remains a staple (particularly for the ill). The rice is not cooked for as long as in Asian congee, so it is very soft, but not disintegrated.
Traditionally, a boiling fowl containing small, immature eggs is used; the eggs are carefully boiled and served in the canja. This soup is sometimes served with a fresh mint leaf on top. Strongly valued as comfort food, it is traditionally given to people recovering from disease, as in Asia, and in some regions of Portugal, there is even a custom of feeding the mother a strict diet of canja in the first weeks after childbirth. It is also eaten traditionally in Brazil and Cape Verde, former Portuguese colonies.
So – the humble congee has spread throughout the world – primarily as a food of the poor, but it has certainly been enjoyed by Emperors when their bellies needed to be given a break from their typical rich feasting. That, of course, does NOT mean an Imperial-style congee wouldn’t be filled with a plethora of different ingredients, both rare and common alike, and it is My take on this Imperial-style that I share with you today, My Citizens! First off – use short-grain rice ONLY in congee – this is My only go-to brand.
At its simplest, congee is a mix of 1 part rice with several parts water – anywhere between seven and ten. I prefer my congee on the thicker side, so I err on the side of using no mere pedestrian water, but the finest Chinese Superior Soup Stock! I also add in some shaoxing rice wine for additional savor – dry sherry can be substituted effectively. There are also a few tricks top Chinese chefs know in how to make a very smooth congee – I shall share these deeply-held secrets with you now!
The first is to mash up a single Chinese “Thousand Year Egg” in with the rice before cooking – it not only adds umami, it also helps the rice break down by virtue of its alkaline nature! The second trick is to add in some shredded bean curd skin (known as yuba in Japanese), which adds a silken consistency to the congee that is impossible to achieve in any other way! You can buy the best-quality fresh yuba here (there is a LOT of it!) or MUCH cheaper and in smaller quantities in any Asian grocery store or even Whole Foods. Worst case – just leave it out.
I call for a mystical 18 ingredients in My Imperial congee – but by all means, feel free to leave any out (or substitute) as you see fit – congee is a most forgiving recipe that does not have to be followed exactly! Please though – do NOT change the use of Chinese superior stock (recipe at the link) or the shaoxing – it is a critical part of the flavor profile! Items like dried scallops are easily found in any Chinese grocery store or apothecary, as are the vast majority of the more unusual ingredients – you can also try sayweee.com which should stock most or all of them!
My Citizens – congee is not at all hard to make, and My Imperial Cantonese version is its ULTIMATE EXPRESSION! Please do try it (or your own take on it, as you see fit!) at your earliest possible convenience! It truly IS the breakfast of Champions! 🙂 My congee is a symphony of flavors, colors and unique touches that TRULY make this recipe deserving of an “Imperial” monicker indeed! Substitute, add or eliminate ingredients as you see fit to make it YOUR version – regardless of ingredients, congee is a magnificent breakfast that deserves your attention forthwith!
Battle on – the GeneralissimoPrint
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