From My Wok to Yours - Taking the Mystery Out of Everyday Dining and Meals!!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Super Food Offerings

Super Bowl Sunday features good, hearty fare, or lots of junk and snack foods, either of which is perfect for the game. Chili is always popular, and a make-your-own-sandwich spread would go nicely alone or with a hot main dish or stew. Crockpot "barbecued" beef or pulled pork sandwiches are always a hit, or you might consider po' boys and gumbo or barbecued beans and easy ham sandwich melts.

Take Asian Cuisine into consideration, and when you put Super Bowl Asian Food together, I think of a rice noodle soup, or congee, or rice porridge.

Congee is not some East Asian panacea.

Chinese by birth — Raised USA all the way— but this 37-year-old was nonetheless raised on congee.

The rice porridge’s pull apparently is strong even among a generation of Chinese Americans who have grown up in a Western culture that daily promises something new to provide comfort or rejuvenation. It might be a pill, an app, an energy drink, a fortified foodstuff, a friend request on Facebook. For millions of people, whether in China or Washington’s Chinatown, those ephemera can’t compare to the simple, unadorned comforts of congee.

Tradition, of course, plays a large role in congee’s appeal, as if the porridge has been hard-wired into the DNA of the people who have been consuming it for centuries. The earliest reference to congee that Meyer-Fong found dates it to the Han dynasty, circa 206 B.C. to A.D. 220, but Yin-Fei Lo maintains that congee’s origins go back further, to approximately 1,000 B.C., during the Zhou dynasty.

Regardless of its starting point, congee has outlived hundreds of now-extinct species and even an explorer or two who thought he’d find a fountain of youth. Most people think of congee as a rice porridge, but the term generally refers to almost any watery gruel. Depending on where you lived in Asia, your congee might have been prepared with millet, barley, corn or even a legume such as mung beans, mixed with or without rice.

For some reason, the South China version made with rice (called “jook” in Cantonese, or “soft rice”) has conquered all, probably because it’s creamy and mild and, as noted above, beloved by babies and the elderly. It has to be the blandest food you’ll ever love.

The dish was born from a human need still prevalent in the 21st century: It was “created as a way of stretching a meal in times of need, when there was not enough rice to go around,” writes Corinne Trang in “Essentials of Asian Cuisine” (Simon & Schuster, 2003). It’s not uncommon to prepare congee with one part rice to 10 parts water, flavoring the porridge with whatever remains in the pantry, essentially feeding a family with a cup of grains and leftovers. Think of it as Asian hash.
Congee typically is eaten for breakfast, but you can get it in the Washington area at any time of day, typically spiked with the ingredients beloved by Chinese immigrants, because they are the ones who order the porridge most in these parts.

When eaten with a length of fried dough called yao tiew, the congee might be the most satisfying winter dish you’ll find around here.

So why don’t more Americans — and by “Americans,” I crassly mean those of non-Asian descent — embrace congee? Why hasn’t congee started to trickle into the mainstream, as have sushi, ceviche, tapas and even banh mi and pho? Part of it, I think, is because there are still many inferior bowls available, in places such as Eat First in Chinatown, where I sucked down a watery, flavorless congee prepared with jellyfish and duck.

But a more plausible reason is one offered by Scott Drewno, executive chef at the Source, who ate his way through China earlier this year and has since been working to assimilate the country’s dishes and flavors into his menu. Drewno theorizes that the word “congee” simply doesn’t mean much to most Americans.

“If I write ‘congee’ [on the menu], people aren’t going to order it because they don’t know what it is,” he says. “It’s not mainstream enough.”

Still, Drewno has been tinkering with some congees, one of which requires day-old rice (much like the classic “rich and noble congee,” so called because only wealthy families in China had leftover rice) that the chef dries in the refrigerator, then pulverizes in the blender and prepares like risotto. Drewno hopes to introduce his congees to Source diners one day soon; he’s just not sure what to call them. The alternative monikers he has toyed with — rice porridge, creamed rice — might be even less appetizing than the original.

Name aside, congee might be a cook’s best friend. Easy to prepare (if time-consuming) and enjoyable on its own, it is also highly suggestible. It assumes whatever personality a cook can foist on it. “It’s pretty neutral on a taste level,” Drewno notes. “You can really do what you want with it.” The trick, he adds, is not to obliterate the flavor of the rice. Congee, after all, should still be congee, not a meat stew with rice.

Such was the mantra I had in mind as I prepared my own personalized congee, one that would incorporate some of my favorite flavors but still honor the inherent milkiness of the rice. That proved trickier than anticipated. My first attempt, a sort of turbocharged congee with spicy sausage and garlic and ginger, was dead on arrival. When paired with the mild starchiness of the rice, the rubbery, store-bought sausage was a traveling freak show trying to entertain a flock of sheep.
After spending several hours on that poor porridge, and after another miss, I had to take a deep breath and remind myself of a quote from Yuan Mei, the Qing dynasty writer, gourmand and author of “Food Lists of the Garden of Contentment”: “Officials and men of letters say it is better for a man to wait for his congee than to make the congee wait for him.” My third attempt would reward my fraying patience.

It was a riff on boeuf bourguignon, a dish I consider as vital to surviving winter as a good wool cap and a heavy overcoat. I prepared hunks of red-wine-braised pork shoulder perked up with Chinese five spice powder and a small colony of garlic cloves. Once finished with its laborious simmer toward tenderness, the pork, I figured, would be a succulent, slightly sweet, highly aromatic counterpoint to the porridge. I was right. I just forgot to factor in one thing: When folded into the congee, the braised pork turned the rice a deathly shade of gray. Prison walls look more appetizing by comparison.

When I told Drewno about my problem, he casually reminded me of how the Chinese serve their congees back home: with the extra ingredients spooned over the top, not incorporated into the rice.  That was my "lightbulb" moment, because I remembered my favorites being served to me with the fish, or the duck, or the pork on the side, ready for ME to put in the congee.

 Problem solved. Now if someone could only help me devise a congee to cure an upset stomach.

Soul Warming Congee


  • 5 1/2 cups water
  • .7 ounce (1 packet) "gastro granules" herbal supplement, such as Wei-Tai 999 brand (see headnote)
  • 1 cup short-grain rice (unrinsed)
  • 1/2 cup homemade or no-salt-added canned chicken broth


Combine 5 cups of the water and the herbal supplement in a large pot over medium-high heat. While the water is heating (5 to 8 minutes), stir to make sure the granules have dissolved.
Add the rice and increase the heat to high; bring to a boil, stirring occasionally, then reduce the heat to medium-low. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally so the rice does not stick to the bottom of the pot. Once the liquid turns cloudy and starts to thicken (after about 30 to 45 minutes), stir in the remaining 1/2 cup of water and the broth. Cover and cook (over medium-low heat) for 30 minutes or as needed (for a total of about 75 minutes), stirring occasionally to prevent sticking or scorching. The congee should be thick, more like a porridge than individual grains of rice.
Divide among individual small bowls; serve hot.

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