Congee – Asian Rice Porridge
Congee is rice porridge. In it’s simplest form, it is made from rice cooked for a long time in water. Consistencies vary from thick and creamy with completely disintegrated rice to thin and broth-like with almost whole rice grains. It can be plain, or flavored by cooking the rice in chicken or some other stock, and it can have other ingredients or fillings like meat and fish, and it can have all kinds of different toppings like egg, herbs, preserved and fresh veges, nuts, seaweed… the list goes on.
I would have to say that congee is my ultimate comfort food, and it is something that brings me straight back home to my family. It is what I crave when I start feeling like I am getting sick and I know that I am far away from home. Like noodles, and Transformers, it comes in endless shapes and forms. You can eat it at all times of the day, but it is usually a breakfast item. It’s normally the first real food item that us Asians start being fed as babies because you don’t really need teeth to eat it, and it is easily digestible.
Congee types and toppings vary from region to region and, like noodles dishes, there are classic combinations. In Thailand, it’s called ‘chok’ or ‘jook’, and on the streets of Bangkok, congee stands usually have soft meatballs made out of ground pork, a soft-cooked egg, finely sliced ginger and scallions, and you would season it yourself with Maggi seasoning sauce. What you typically find as part of a Chinese restaurant’s dim sum menu is a congee based on chicken and pork stock, and topped with century egg, cooked pork, white pepper and scallions. In China and South East Asia, you usually eat congee accompanied by a savory deep-fried bread stick, also known as, the Chinese doughnut. Japanese call their congee ‘okayu’ and it has a lower water to rice ratio and is less cooked. Common Japanese toppings include umeboshi (preserved plum), fish roe or fish.
My family originates from Cambodia, with Chinese heritage, so the type of congee that I like the most is a South-East Asian style congee. My parents were refugees to New Zealand from the Pol Pot regime, and they told me that during that time, when the whole living population in Cambodia were forced into rural labor, the only thing that they were allowed to eat was a small bowl of congee made from just rice and water, and they would eat that once a day while working almost 20 hours a day on rice fields. It makes me feel super lucky to be able to enjoy congee in the luxurious form that I can today, and whenever I visit my parents, I always cook congee for them for breakfast.
Cambodian congee is pretty hard-core compared to those of some other Asian regions. We like to put all kinds of things in it, like intestine, liver, gizzards, blood cubes, pork and chicken meat. Toppings are usually bean sprouts, coriander, spring onions, fried garlic, chilli oil, black pepper and fish sauce. Alternatively, when we eat plain congee, we like it with fried chinese sausage, salt-preserved hard-boiled eggs, or pork floss – a salted and dried form of shredded pork.
You can easily make congee as you feel like – and eat it whenever you want, with whatever toppings and seasonings as you want! No restrictions! Here follows a basic recipe:
Basic Congee, Cambodian-style
500 g fragrant jasmine rice
3 l roasted pork stock
3 l roasted chicken stock
Poached chicken, shredded
Mung bean sprouts, blanched quickly in boiling water
Fried garlic in oil
Roasted chilli oil, or black bean chilli oil
Freshly ground black pepper
Soft boiled egg
In a large stockpot, rinse the rice well in water, up to 3 times, to remove excess starch (otherwise the congee gets too sticky, rather than getting silky). Top the rice with the pork and chicken stock and a few pinches of salt, and bring to the boil over high heat, stirring occasionally, until the rice grains burst open and the consistency starts to thicken, approximately 45 minutes to 1 hour. Reduce the heat to medium low, and simmer, adding water to adjust the consistency to how you like it. When you have reached your desired consistency, add shredded poached chicken and season with a bit of fish sauce. Don’t over season the congee at this stage – the idea should be that when you mix your bowl of congee with the toppings, you season it how you like it with fish sauce, salt, black pepper, or whatever you like. Add toppings, season and enjoy.
By Lisa Lov