Congee Concepts

I like congee. When my western friends reach for pizza or tomato soup as comfort foods, I do find myself missing that fragrant rice porridge with its accompanying bowls of tasty toppings. It seems I am not alone.  I’ve been seeing a lot of social media and articles discussing this south-east Asian dish. They mainly focus on it being the secret of a healthy life, and a pick-me-up when you’re ill. Whilst all of this is true, I can’t help but feel that these representations are somewhat missing the main point, and perpetuating some misperceptions. The Chinese, for one, eat congee as an everyday staple, some even consider a delicious treat. With family roots across central, northern and southern China, I have grown up with a variety of experiences of the 粥zhou (Mandarin for congee).

For the people of Chaozhou (Teochew), zhou means plain white rice congee made with a small proportion of rice, so it’s mainly a thick guey liquid interspersed with occasional firm grains. The dish is a regular breakfast, taken in a rice bowl with chopsticks rather than a spoon, for picking up small morsels from shared plates of dried fish and vegetables, and to aid slurping. If the rice is good quality, a tasty film of ‘rice skin’ would form on top when it has cooled enough to eat. It’s perfect for the subtropical weather of the region. My favourite condiment to have with this kind of zhouis lancai (pickled shredded black olives and mustard leaves), which used to be hard to get hold of in the UK. So we’d always stock up, if we could find it at Chinese grocers.

Going to stay with my maternal grandparents in the north of China, the congee made by my laolao (northern term for grandma), albeit also an everyday food, was very different. Dinner often consisted of the xiaomi zhou  (millet congee), which is cooked with less water and thicker, so that whilst it was still soft and wet, there was no visible liquid. This would usually be accompanied by steamed wowotou five grain buns, and dishes like spring onions dipped in the dajiang (Manchurian bean sauce) and wrapped in doufu skins.

The congee tradition with which I’m most familiar though, is that of wider Guangdong, the jook (Cantonese for congee). There, congee ranges from an everyday staple to a cherished delicacy, and in the city of Guangzhou, it is one of the indispensable trio of traditional food stall fare, where classic signs reading, 粥粉面(jook, fun, meen) – congee, rice noodles and wheat noodles, can still be seen. Plain congee is frequently eaten as a side dish to dry-fried beef hofun. Sang choy zhühong jook (Chinese lettuce and pigs blood congee) is common on menus, and often served as my keijiancan at primary school (a mid-morning snack Chinese schools started to roll out in the early 80s, to help students keep up their blood sugar levels between the early start to the day and lunch). While the peidan sauyuk jook (“thousand year” eggs and lean pork congee), as a timeless favourite in households restaurants alike, has become a bit of a signature variety, and one that my Shunde Po Po (Cantonese for grandma) cooked to perfection.

When you go for morning dimsum at a Cantonese teahouse, there’s always a range of congee on the menu. At some of the more traditional restaurants, where the delicacies are brought on old style trolleys, the jook occupy their own trolley, on which the varieties are in their own tall steel pots, ready to be ladled out. At this meal, the jook is usually taken when the appetite is half sated by steamed dumplings and cheungfun; spooned into smaller bowls, shared and savoured slowly over long chats, either between the entire group, or, if not everyone feels like it, among select congee buddies, glad to find one another within the group.

Guangdong is also famous for its tengzai jook, boat congee. Although these are now served in restaurants, they were originally created by the region’s danmin (fisherman who live on their boats), who used to moor their boats on riverbanks to sell snacks to passers by. The tengzai zhuk consists of a white rice congeebasewhich has been boiled with duck, chicken or fish bones, and then served with a selection of toppings of your choice, usually wafer thin slices of raw fish, jellyfish and offal, nuts, dried shrimp and shredded squid, sliced yauzahgui (“deep fried devil” dough sticks), shredded lettuce and spring onions. As you drop your toppings in, the raw ingredients cook in the boiling hot jook. The palette is treated to an explosion of fresh and delicate xian tastes (Chinese word for that unique savoury tastes found in protein-based foods), as well as crunchy, soft, chewy textures.

These are just the congee traditions of the areas I’m most familiar with, and I know that Hubei, to which I also have family ties, has its own abundance of variations, as does practically every region of China.

As a self-contained dish that goes down easily, congee is indeed a common dish to feed children and the infirm, which is why many people think of it as food for the sick. There is no doubt that congee, dairy-free, low-fat and yet containing all nutrition of the ingredients it is cooked with, is a healthy option; though it was the taste and bite of the heimizhou (black rice porridge) my mother sometimes cooked for dinner, rather than her sermons on how good it was for my circulation, that made me remember it.

The zhou is far more than a health food, or sustenance for the invalid, and Is certainly not the soggy, puritanical gruel that so many Westerners consider it as. It’s time we started to see congee as the major part of Chinese cooking that it is, with as many branches, varieties and regional offshoots as dumplings or noodles. Perhaps one day, we might see congee stalls crop up in our Chinatowns, bringing us those rich comforting flavours of China.

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