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Congee: Asia's Bowl Full of Comfort

by Ammini Ramachandran

Soups and Congees

Spring Volume: 2002 Issue: 9(1) page(s): 5, 8, 27 and 28

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

Rice is revered as divine in many Asian countries 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 just as an ingredient. Naturally, people tend to consider the rice they are used to eating as the most delicious variety. For example, the Chinese prefer long or medium grain and a non-aromatic rice. The Japanese and the Koreans prefer slightly glassy translucent medium or short-grain sticky rice. The Thai and Vietnamese prefer 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 of this nation prefer medium long grain non-aromatic parboiled rice.

Although Asian cooking styles often include different and 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 flavored with a variety of toppings and condiments. In China, this dish it is most often called Jook or Congee. It has several different names in other parts of Asia. By whatever name it is called, this jook or congee is pure comfort food. It is easy to prepare and most satisfying at any hour and 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. This dish known as congee is most accommodating. Babies are raised on it and the elderly and invalids prefer it for its nutritional value and ease of digestion.

CHINESE STYLE: This dish is 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 one enjoyed by all classes of prople. It was even served at banquets by the people from Chaozhou.

In China, congee dates back to at least 1000 BCE when thick grain-based gruels flavored with a variety of ingredients were popular. Historically, it was made with several grains – wheat, barley, sorghum, millet, tapioca, even corn. A Qing dynasty manual on porridge by Huang Yungu lists two hundred thirty-seven different ways of preparing this bowl of comfort. Other grains were mostly used in northern China where they grew abundantly. In the south, from Shanghai to what is now known as Guangzhou (Canton), rice was and 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 that every time he calls out the name of the cook he must 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 into the rice pot. Needless to say, by the time the guests arrived the rice had become rice porridge.

That story illustrates that basic congee is rice cooked in excess broth or water, often ten to twelve parts of liquid for one part rice. It does not point out that some congees are sweet in taste while others are savory. Nor does it indicate that elaborate versions can include items from pork meatballs to barbecued pig’s feet. Traditionally, basic congee can simply be served along with preserved eggs and threads of fresh ginger for taste, shredded lettuce for contrasting crunch, and fresh cilantro and scallions for fragrance.

HONG KONG CONGEE and most congees can be served for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. A fancy rendition at an evening meal can be a dish such as Lobster Congee or a Dragon Shrimp Jook. While some Cantonese prefer it sweetened with rock sugar, people of Shanghai like theirs served savory with cabbage. In Fujiian, 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 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, then finished with an addition of sugar; and it is served as a snack.

CONGEE THROUGHOUT CHINA is more than just a dish served at a meal. It is also used as a base for therapeutic treatment. As such, it was prevalent in China as early as pre-Qin period (221 - 207 BCE). Congee with Asparagus was believed to be a diuretic and was also used to reduce cholesterol. Ginger Congee was used to settle the stomach, reduce nausea, and as 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.

TAIWAN,and wherever the Chinese live, they enjoy Gour Bah, a sizzling rice soup. It is often made with baby shrimp. The hardened rice layer left at the bottom of a rice pot becomes the base of any Gour Bah dish. A combination of sweet small shrimp and tomatoes give the soup added texture and taste. Deep-fried Gour Bah or what are also called 'rice cakes' are placed in a soup bowl or a tureen, the soup is poured over them and they sizzle with this addition. This soup can also be made with crab and other sea foods, also with items not from the sea.

KOREA calls their rice soup, Jott Jook. They use ground rice pulverized to a very fine silken texture before cooking. Ground barley or lentils may be added while cooking, and the soup garnished with pine nuts and/or sliced pitted dates. In another and 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, a beverage, is sweetened with sugar and served over ice in summer.

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

THE PHILIPPINE people eat congee 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, called Chao Bo, is loaded with tender rice and ground beef. It is not only eaten at breakfast, it is the last course in a Bo Bay Mon, or 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 fully cooked, the ground beef is sprinkled over it and cooked for some time longer. This soup is seasoned with fish sauce and served garnished with peanuts, garlic oil, cilantro, and scallions. In another version, rice and small pieces of shrimp are cooked in a lightly flavored broth then garnished with roasted chopped peanuts. Traditionally, it is served with a side of a hot Vietnamese sauce for extra flavoring. There is a sweetened version made with sticky rice and taro; that 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, then simmered until thoroughly cooked. Fresh coconut milk is stirred in and coconut cream is drizzled on top.

THAILAND's rice soup is called Khao Tom. Fragrant jasmine rice is used for their version and cooked in chicken broth along 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, dry-roasted and chopped peanuts, and a pitcher of soy sauce.

MYANMAR is China’s neighbor toward the Himalayan rim. They make their rice soup 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 with deep-fried scallions on top, and preferred warm, not hot.

KARAN, are a native Burmese tribe who live in lower Myanmar on the border of Thailand. They prepare their rice soup and call it Tata Pan. It has an interesting and imaginative flavor and is 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.

BHUTAN is located on the eastern ridges of the Himalayas and to the west of China; there rice soup is called Tukpa and loved for breakfast on cold mornings. Pork bones with some meat on them are cooked in plenty of water, the rice added to the pot after half an hour along with, cook's choice, chopped onions, fresh ginger, chili powder, salt and a little oil. All this is simmered uncovered for an hour or so, then served very hot.

India, in ancient times and in several regions, fresh and fermented rice soups were popular for breakfast. 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 Kanjka was made by fermenting rice porridge. It was popular among the ancient seafaring Dravidians in the South who served it with deep fried lentil cakes called Vatakas.

SIKKAM is close to Tibet and China, and they eat their rice soup called Phitoo and prepare it by cooking rice with excess water along with boneless chicken pieces and crumbled farmer's cheese. They flavor this rice gruel with butter, chopped onions and fresh ginger. After an hour of simmering, when the porridge had thickened, they stir in some soy sauce.

BENGAL/b> is in eastern India, and there, 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.

SOUTHERN INDIA's rice soup is called kanji. It 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 served warm with salt and cooked red beans, and considered a staple food. The best kanji today 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 set aside for half an hour before serving. During this time the rice softens more and absorbs more water. Just before serving, the kanji is gently stirred and put in a shallow bowl, with salt sprinkled on top. Accompaniments vary andcan include ghee, yogurt, fried pappadams, deep-fried dehydrated vegetables rice crisps, fresh or toasted coconut chutney, puzukku (vegetables cooked with fresh coconut and cumin), or cooked red beans.

CONGEE AT FESTIVALS< CELEBRATIONS AND IN MYTHS 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-treasure rice. Thingyan Htamin or Water Festival Rice Soup is prepared in Myanmar to celebrate Hint San, the 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, which 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, each in a separate dish. In Kerala, in southern India, the bounty of tropical summer is celebrated in a festival called Vishu. It is believed that what a person sees first on Vishu morning will influence that person’s fortune 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 that is 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 stems of coconut palm leaves. The soup spoons to eat this rice soup are made of folded leaves of the jackfruit pinned with stems of coconut palm leaves. Garnished, it is served on a piece of banana leaf and on the side are fresh coconut slices, Indian brown sugar chunks, and deep-fried pappadams. In olden days, kanji was served for supper on every new moon in south India and feeding rice or rice soup to the poor was considered the ultimate good deed. It was also offered to the poor in observance of annual memorial day of departed family members.

OVERALL: Rice gruel, the congee or jook or whatever its name, is a dish with ancient origins, one that 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 the Chinese New Year people eat cooked fluffy rice at all their meals. To eat rice porridge on this day is thought, by some, to mean hard times for the future.

Several authentic Chinese and Southeast Asian restaurants feature rice gruel dishes, on their menus. These dishes are also found in Chinese and other Asian 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, will you find an Indian restaurant offering a rice porridge; a recipe for this dish and its variations are seldom found in Indian cookbooks. I believe that is because it is considered a poor man’s meal, not worth mentioning or including in a menu.

The range of ingredients used in preparing rice soups certainly do vary with geographic location. One could generalize and say that In China, eggs, chicken, pork, ginger, scallions, Chinese parsley, and sometimes lotus seed add flavor and fragrance to their non-medicinal congees. Island areas such as Hong Kong and Taiwan, and the Philippines, all flavor theirs with foods of the sea. In Korea, this dish, considered a soup, is enhanced with dates, pine nuts, and sugar. The Japanese flavor theirs 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 Chinese influences along with their Indian ones. They 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.

Below, are several ancient rice gruel dishes. The first is Chinese and compliments of your Editor. It is made from one of the most ancient grains in China. She advises that the Chinese believe it easy to digest and good for the stomach. The rest of the recipes are mine. The second a popular Indian one preferred during the four-day Thirandukalyaanam or coming of age celebration for young girls. Guests at that festivity are invited to lunch on the third day, sometimes every day, and served this sweet rice dish with milk, coconut slices, jaggery chunks, and deep-fried pappadams. It is served in thadas (bowls) made of plantain stems held together with coconut palmleaf stems and eaten with folded jackfruit-leaf spoons. The third recipe called Jott Juk is textured and sweet, and from Korea. The fourth and last one, Thupka, is meat-flavored and enjoyed in Bhutan where it is usually had for breakfast. Do enjoy them all!
Ammini Ramachandran, a financial analyst by profession, lives in New York. Her interest in culinary history has led her to research the ancient spice trade and its influences on the vegetarian cuisine of her native state in Southwest India. This interest led her to consider the variations of congee in China and other Asian countries. Based upon this research, she is working on a cookbook featuring the region’s traditional recipes. The one for Paal Kanji is exerpted from that forthcoming volume.
Millet Congee with Brown Rice
1/2 cup millet, washed well in cold water
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup brown rice, soaked overnight in lots of water
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 Tablespoons scallions, green tops only, minced very fine
1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds
1. Bring six cups of water to the boil, add the millet and the salt and reduce the heat. Cover the pot part way, and simmer for thirty minutes.
2. Rinse the brown rice six or seven times in cool water, and drain well. Add the rice to the millet. Add more water if less than a quart remains, and covered as before simmer another hour and a half or until both grains are very tender. Turn off the heat and leavecovered at least another half an hour.
3. Add pepper, sesame oil, and scallions. Serve soup in individual bowls.
Paal Kanji
3 cups whole milk
1 cup parboiled rice, rinsed
1/2 cup sugar
1. In a heavy bottomed pot, bring milk to a rolling boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for ten minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove the pot from the heat and keep it covered.
2. In another pot, bring three cups of water to the boil and add the rinsed rice, lower the heat and simmer for forty minutes, stirring frequently. Add more water, if needed.
3. Pour the boiled milk into the rice mixture and stir well, and continue to simmer for another ten to fifteen minutes until the rice feels very soft.
4. Add the sugar and keep the rice covered until ready to serve. Just before serving, stir gently.
Note: This can be served with fresh coconut slices, jaggery chunks, and/or deep fried pappadums.
Jott Jook
2 teaspoons minced dates
1 Tablespoon honey
1/2 cup pitted sliced dates
1/2 cup honey
2 cups short grain rice
1 cup pine nuts
1. Soak the minced dates in some of the honey for one hour and the sliced dates in another bowl in a larger amount of the honey for two or three hours.
2. Grind rice, with two cups of water, in a blender until smooth. Remove and add the sliced dates.
3. Put rice mixture in a large pot and add six additional cups of water. Bring this to the boil and simmer for three-quarters of an hour, stirring periodically. If it gets too thick, add more water, a quarter of a cup at a time.
4. Toast the pine nuts in a dry fry pan until lightly colored. Cool, then grind them. This is best done in a mortar and pestle and not in a blender.
5. Add the ground nuts and simmer for five minutes. Serve in individual bowls, topping each with a little of the minced dates and honey.
1 pound pork bones with some pork meat still attached
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup rice
1 and 1/2 cups thinly sliced onions
2 Tablespoons chopped fresh ginger
1 Tablespoon oil
1. Bring eight cups of water ro the boil, add pork bones and skim. After all debris is removed, reduce the heat, add the salt, and simmer uncovered for half an hour.
2. Add rice and all the remaining ingredients and simmer for an additional hour. Stir occasionally, and add extra hot water, if it gets too thick. Also add more salt, if needed.

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