There’s something Japan’s favourite fermented foodstuffs have in common, and you may not have heard of it before.
Porridge is a popular breakfast food in Australia, often lauded as a great start to the day because of a lack of animal fats and being low G.I. Porridge is not unique to the west, however; it’s been eaten in Asia for centuries, but they just call it congee. If you’ve travelled through Asia, chances are you’ve seen congee. Often a breakfast food, this rice porridge—sometimes called a soup—is eaten a variety of different ways and prepared differently depending on which country you’re in.
Congee is such a simple dish and has been around for such a long time that the history of it has been lost or—more probably—never recorded. The origin of the word is thought to be Tamil, but it could just as easily be Malay. It is widely thought to have been served in times of famine—or during festivals or large gatherings—as a way to ‘stretch’ rice. Not literally, of course; the idea was to feed more people with less food. Today it’s often made with leftover rice and eaten the next day for breakfast. The earliest references to congee appear around 206 B.C. in China, but it’s believed to originate up to 1,000 years earlier in the Zhou dynasty.
The health benefits of congee have long been championed in Asia for centuries. It’s one of the first non-milk-based foods given to babies and is often administered to the sick and the old. It’s incredibly gentle on the stomach and is thought to help the body detox. While it’s not the most nutritious meal—being mostly carbohydrates—by itself, it is low G.I. and often has vegetables, fruits and meats added, which obviously help boost its nutritional value. In fact, congee is rarely served plain unless it’s being used as a side dish. If it’s being eaten as a main meal, it will always have tastier elements added.
So, how do you prepare congee? Well, that really depends on which country you’re in. Indonesians, for example, call congee ‘bubur’ and is served with shredded chicken and a variety of condiments, while in Korea it’s called ‘juk’ and there are over 40 varieties dished up. Congee can be made from rice, legumes and a whole variety of grains and is cooked in everything from water, to bone broth, to coconut milk. For the sake of simplicity, however, we’re going to use the Cantonese variety.
Despite most people in the West associating congee with the Chinese, it’s only known as congee in Guangdong, which suits us perfectly. When you really break congee down, it’s just overcooked rice. What makes it exciting is what you cook it in. A lot of people use water due to the large amounts of liquid required, but like risotto, a great broth makes it 100 times better. The type of rice you use is again up to you. The Cantonese use long grain, so that’s what we’ll use too, but really whatever you have lying around is fine. Cooking time is up to your personal preference, but an hour should be plenty.
If you loved reading about congee, give our Chicken Congee recipe a try!