What is congee? Previously I would have said my least favorite food in Asia, but the longer I stay here and the more congee is forced upon me, the more I have started to “accept it”. Note I am not yet saying “like”.
What is Congee?
Congee in its loosest possible terms is rice mixed with hot-water to make a kind of rice porridge.
It has been a mainstay of many Asian cuisines pretty much since people started eating rice. It is cheap and it is very easy to make. As well as being a “poor persons” dish it has characterized periods of famine in places such as China, Cambodia and Korea as being the only food available. Essentially you can have as much or as little rice as is available.
History of Congee
Congee is rice porridge or gruel. The name itself is derived from Tamil காஞ்ஜி hinting at a South Asian origin to the dish. It is eaten literally in every country in Asia, all of whom have their own name for it and indeed regional style of cooking it.
Congee is now found throughout the world, mainly due to the Chinese diaspora, but with Portugal also famously having their own take on the food.
What is the difference between porridge and congee?
Congee is a rice porridge. The kind of porridge we are used to in the west contains things like oats and barley. Western porridge and congee are very much cousins, not brothers.
Whats in a name?
In western parlance we know it is a congee, but most countries have their own name for it. I am not going to go down a rabbit hole of analyzing every rice porridge in the world, but I will at least give you the local name for each one.
What is congee around the world
- China – 白粥; lit. ‘white porridge – in Chinese
- Japan – Kayu (粥), or often okayu (お粥) – in Japanese
- Korea – Juk 죽; 粥 – in Korean
- Cambodia – bobar in Khmer
- Indonesia – bubur in Indonesian
- Laos – khao pick in Laos
- Philippines – lugaw Filipino rice gruel
- Thai – Jok
- Vietnam – cháo
- India – kanji (கஞ்சி) the origin of the name congee
- Portugal – Canja de galinha – more a rice and meat soup
How do you make it? Congee recipes?
There are literally so many recipes for this dish you could write thousands of words, but at its most simple it is as follows.
Very easily, hence its popularity and cheapness. In essence you boil rice until it softens then when it is soft you leave it with the water. Whether ingredients are added, or not is down to the establishment, or chef. There is no fixed rice to water ratio either. Essentially this has traditionally depended on the financial situation of those eating it.
During the rule of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia “bohar” consisted of mostly water.
To read about street foods inspired by the Khmer Rouge click here.
When do people eat congee?
There is no hard and fast rule to when you eat congee, but traditionally at least it has been a breakfast staple. This is due to how filling it is, cheap and easy to make. It is though not exclusively eaten as a breakfast. In Cambodia for example it is very much part of the street food scene. I recently had Cambodian duck porridge whilst visiting Kratie.
To read about street food in Kratie click here .
Is it any good?
I’ll measure this answer as I said it is growing on me. I will though share an anecdote.
I was won a flight from New Zealand to China. They offered congee, or “western breakfast”. I was one of only two westerners on the plane. By the time they got to us only congee was left. I was freaking furious. In this respects you can say this. Yes it is a traditional Asian food, but that does not mean people “love it” in the modern era. Otherwise i’d have got my western breakfast.
With that being said though, it has now grown on me.
How do you make it taste better?
Because congee is pretty much flavorless this leaves it as a blank tablet for you. I recently had it in Cambodia, I added duck, hot sauce and Kampot pepper. Essentially this is the best part about congee, you decide how it should taste.
Obviously like any simple dish the hipsters have tried to appropriate it. I mean they even tried to take over Pag-Pag.
To read about Pag-Page click here .
But, there is a variation that I really like. In North Korea rice and soup are saved at the end of the meal, much to the consternation of many guests we take to the DPRK. This is because it is seen as a “filler”. Basically you eat the good shit first. Koreans will pour their rice into the soup and then eat it with a spoon. This is a habit I have since taken up. Although not strictly congee, it is close enough in my books to warrant a comment.
To read about North Korea cuisine click here
As a soup?
Again on the soup trend and very popular in India (and even Portugal) the onus is less towards the porridge element, but much more based on what you put in. This in my mind makes it more like a rice soup than a porridge. Particularly good if you thrown in some potatoes.
And that is the wonderful world of what is congee? If you plan to go to East-Asia you will eat this at some point, whether you like it, or not.