Congee: The Rice Porridge That Bridges Cultures
Image Credit: Congee

Consumption of congee dates back some three thousand years to the Chinese Zhou dynasty. The dish appears in more than one ancient text in South and East Asia. The word "congee" derives from the Tamil word "kanji" (meaning "boilings"), which morphed into "congee" when Portuguese colonizers landed in 16th-century Goa.

Whether you call it congee, chowder, or jook, it's a staple in Asia. Porridge, which is often made with rice, is most commonly eaten for breakfast but can also be used as a savory dish or sweet treat. In the Philippines, Lugaw is a similar rice-based dish that can be sweet or savory depending on the ingredients, which can range from cocoa powder to offal. But the healing herbs in Sri Lankan kola kanda and Indian karkidaka kanji turn the food into a time-honored remedy.

Congee is made by simmering rice in a lot of water or stock (you can also use other grains to make congee, like barley, millet, etc.). In Chinese and Asian cuisines, it is taken as a snack or even a light meal, and is often thought of as a comfort food. There are innumerable varieties of congee recipes in several countries where rice is a staple.

The Chinese have consumed congee for thousands of years, and it was even used as an offering in ancient Chinese temples. Congee is a very wholesome food, so it was often used as a way to appease the gods. Congee has also been used as a traditional remedy to help people recover from illness; this is because porridge is easy to digest and is low in fat. Congee is usually served with other dishes like a stir-fry or a meat dish. In many places across Asia, congee is served with a side of vegetables and topped with soy sauce.

The recipe for congee is fairly simple, and you don’t need to follow it too precisely. This is because the recipe is more of a guideline than a strict set of instructions. All you need to do is place a handful of rice in a large pot along with some water. Bring the rice and water to a boil, and let it simmer until the rice has broken down into a thick and creamy consistency. Depending on the type of congee you want to make, you can adjust the amount of time you simmer the rice. For example, if you want to make savory congee, you’ll simmer the rice for about an hour. If you want to make sweet congee, you’ll simmer the rice for about 20 minutes.

The different types of congee:

Savory Congee

Millions of people enjoy savory congee, a traditional breakfast. The dish is made with a large amount of rice and a small amount of water, and it’s simmered until the rice is soft and the water has evaporated. Savory congee is often eaten with vegetables, fish, and/or meat.

Sweet Congee

Sweet congee is also a traditional breakfast that’s made with a large amount of rice and a small amount of water. The rice is simmered until it’s broken down and soft. Sweet congee is often topped with dried fruits, sugar, and/or honey.

Chinese Congee

Chinese congee is a savory congee that’s usually served with meat, fish, and/or vegetables. It’s garnished with ginger, spring onions, and/or fried shallots. Chinese congee is one of the most common types of congee in its homeland China, and is available in most Chinese restaurants worldwide. 

Though it may have originated in China, congee made its way all over the Asian landmass, adapting to nearly every region and culture. Its perhaps the simplicity of its preparation that has helped it reach far and wide – all you have to do is slow cook rice on a low flame in a large amount of water. Congee’s Indian avatar, Ganji/Kanji, is often taken by people who are recovering from an illness. And like many traditional dishes, congee is being reworked by many chefs to create fusion dishes that suit the tastes of modern customers.