Congee: The History Of The Chinese Porridge And Its Variants
Image Credit: Congee may be served plain, or with small pieces of braised meat.

Congee is an important part of East Asian cuisine, but the word originated from the Tamil word ‘kanji’, which may refer to the water in which rice has been cooked or the porridge itself. It is a preparation of rice boiled in water. Some variations substitute water with milk or coconut milk. It may be served plain, or with small pieces of braised meat, fermented egg or vegetables. 

Also called ‘jook’, congee dates back to approximately 1000 BC, during the Zhou dynasty, according to cookbook author Eileen Yin-Fei Lo. It is also mentioned in the Chinese Record of Rites (a collection of descriptions of rituals of the Zhou dynasty).

The Portuguese encountered the word congee when they colonised different countries and it was documented by Portuguese-Jewish botanist Garcia de Orta in ‘Colóquios dos simples e drogas da India’, a series of conversations between Garcia de Orta and Ruano, an imaginary colleague who visits India and is curious about its produce. Orta refers to it as ‘canje’ (canja means chicken broth in Portuguese). Variations of the word have appeared in other European languages too: ‘candgie’ (Latin), ‘cangia’ (Italian) and ‘canjé’ (French). 

Today, congee has names as varied as its different styles of preparation. As is the case with plain boiled rice, congee serves as a side with different condiments. The Japanese make ‘okayu’, a rice porridge with umeboshi (pickled plum), salmon and nori. In Taiwan, congee is served with sweet potato. The Filipino version of congee, ‘arroz caldo’, is considered a light midday meal or a more substantial one when served with seafood and boiled eggs. The Thai prepare ‘khao tom’, a soup-like congee, which may use pork, shrimp, and generous amounts of garlic and ginger. In Korea, ‘juk’ may be used to describe porridge made with rice or legumes, like barley and beans. 

Different types of congee may come from different culinary traditions, but they are united in the idea of being food that provides comfort and nutrition.