Every South Indian’s fondest childhood memory is to slurp down a bowl of rice gruel, commonly known as ‘Kanji’ when they fell ill. Fast forward to a modern fine dining Chinese restaurant where the menu has ‘Congee’. Turns out that both of these dishes are similar in taste and ingredients except the fact that the Chinese ‘Congee’ has bits of meat floating in the gruel. But are both of these dishes historically connected? If not, how do they have the same flavour profile? We know these questions must be bothering you right now. But don’t worry; we’ve got you covered.

The word ‘Kanji’ traces its origin back to the Sanskrit word ‘Kanjika’. This word is found in Supa Sashtra, written by a Jain ruler of Mysore. The author describes ‘Kanji’ as a sour rice gruel made by leaving boiled rice overnight to ferment and is consumed either hot or cold. The description matches the recipe of Odisha’s Torani Kanji which is made through the same procedure by adding some vegetables and a tempering. 

It is clear by the above description that Kanji probably originated in India and was shipped to South Asia through the Tamil conquests. Legend has it that the Malay Chinese took Kanji to China, added meat and made Congee. 

The popularity of Kanji or Congee is because it is laboursaving and has medicinal properties. The rice is cooked till it's soft and there’s nothing left to digest. The cooking process breaks down all the starch making the gruel gut-friendly. The addition of vegetables, meat, and tempering is to pack nutrition and flavour and to make the gruel more filling. The Chinese Congee is sometimes served with a side dish like braised meat, seafood, or pickled vegetables. 

Be it Kanji or Congee, the rice gruel will always be the go-to food for most South Indians while ill. The flavourful, filling porridge is always fun to slurp down and irresistibly delicious.