Congee is an easy-to-make comfort food beloved in China and across Asia. If you haven’t tried it, you’re missing out.
Gruel, mush, grits, cream of wheat, and oatmeal — they’re all names for porridge. Growing up, I was familiar with cream of wheat and oatmeal. They were what my mom made for us when it was either cold outside or we were out of any other breakfast food — either way, they were breakfasts I looked forward to. But all the others sounded like food you have to eat rather than food you want to eat: I knew my mom ate cornmeal mush growing up on a farm; according to Charles Dickens, gruel was what they fed orphans; Flo the waitress, referred to grits as something to be kissed (I was not sure what that meant, but judging from her tone, it had to be something disgusting, right?); and porridge was what little girls golden locks stole from bears. None of those are very good illustrations of what porridge is, nor are they contemporary. That’s why, for the most part, porridge had disappeared from my food vernacular — until I was introduced to congee (also called jook): Chinese rice porridge.
What Is Congee?
Congee is rice slow-cooked with lots of water until it breaks down. It might sound like risotto, but it’s more like very thick rice soup. The first I’d heard of this centuries-old dish was a few years ago when I had lunch with my cousin at an upscale Asian eatery in San Francisco. Her 5-year-old son ordered chicken congee, which he apparently loves. I was dubious because he has a particularly refined palate — his favorite food as a toddler was salmon eggs. He’s been exposed to a lot for his age, but this was porridge😣. This was what they ate on Little House on the Prairie. How could a little boy growing up in 21st century San Francisco enjoy the same food as a little pioneer girl from 19th century Minnesota? The short answer: It’s comfort food.
You know when you learn a new word and suddenly you notice that it’s on every billboard, comes up in every conversation, and is in every article you read? That’s what happened with me and congee. Suddenly it was on every single menu I saw — which isn’t that much of a stretch since I live in San Francisco’s Chinatown. What I didn’t realize is that, just like oatmeal in the United States or England, congee is eaten daily in Asian countries and is as common as noodle soup. In fact, it’s so common, McDonald’s put it on the menu in Thailand. It’s called McPorridge. That alone demanded research —I spent the past couple of months tasting congee from different restaurants to figure out what makes congee a breakfast staple in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and many other Asian countries.
Yummly’s Senior Product Designer, Kelin Zhao, is from Beijing. She tells me that congee is eaten in two instances: for breakfast and when you’re having tummy trouble. On my congee crusade, I came across breakfast options like congee with pork and century egg, chicken jook, or duck jook with a garnish of green onions, cilantro, and fresh ginger. It’s often served with a savory stick-shaped Chinese doughnut (called Youtiao) that is sliced into pieces. The Chinese doughnut is used with congee the way you’d use a piece of bread to sop up soup.
From the congee I sampled in San Francisco, only savory soups were offered — Kelin says that in Northern China, it’s more common to eat it as a savory dish and in Southern China you’ll find a few more sweet versions. She loves the way her mom minces spinach, fries it, and then adds it to the porridge. Part of congee’s appeal is that it’s very customizable. You can make it as thick and creamy (more cooking time, less water) or thin and soupy (less time, more water) as you’d like. Yummly’s VP of Product, Melissa Guyre, grew up on her grandmother’s congee. Melissa’s grandmother is from Taishan, Guangdong and makes a very thick, creamy congee.
Very much like fried rice, congee is brilliant way to use up leftover rice. One cup of cooked rice simmered with 2 cups of water or chicken broth, partially covered, for 30 to 40 minutes (or until it reaches a consistency you like) makes a lovely bowl of rice porridge. Any additions are then mixed in: Scallions and soy sauce are a simple and delicious way to start. You can do the same thing with brown rice, though you’ll need a little more water and more simmer time.
How To Make Congee With Uncooked Rice
If you want to make it all fresh, congee is easy to make and it turns a small amount of rice into a big meal. You can make one bowl of porridge with just 2 Tablespoons of uncooked rice (long grain or short grain) and 2 cups of water.
Methods for cooking congee vary widely, but this is one I used that worked:
- Rinse 1/2 cup of white rice several times, and then soak it in 8 cups fresh water for 30 minutes.
- Bring the rice and water to a boil with 1 teaspoon salt over medium-high heat before reducing it to a simmer. Simmer for 60 to 90 minutes, partially covered. Stir every few minutes so it doesn’t stick to the pan.
This is just one method — some recipes say to soak the rice overnight, others say it doesn’t require soaking time at all. Some recipes call for a cooking time of 20 minutes and others say it should be cooked for two hours. I’ve tried many methods, and they all yielded very similar results.
If you want to get it on the table a little faster, there are a few ways to speed up the process.
Broken rice: You can buy “broken rice,” which is widely available at Asian groceries. It’s exactly what it sounds like — a bag of rice grains that were broken during processing and separated from the more uniform grains, making the broken rice a bit cheaper. The smaller pieces cook faster.
Grind it: You can break the rice yourself by pulsing it in a food processor a couple of times. Like the broken rice, the smaller pieces cook faster.
Freeze it: Melissa shared a quick-cooking method with me that involves freezing uncooked rice. First, you rinse and drain the rice and then put it in the freezer overnight. The moisture leftover from rinsing expands when it freezes and shatters the rice into smaller pieces so it turns into porridge in less time.
Other Cooking Methods
You don’t have to cook congee on the stovetop — there are a few other ways of cooking congee.
Slow Cooker You can cook your congee on low for ten hours or on high for five hours, but the rice-to-water ratios are the same and so are the results. In the last half-hour of cooking, if it’s too soupy for your taste, you can leave off the lid to let some of the water cook off. One benefit of this is that you don’t have to stir it, because the slow cooker heats so gently and evenly.
Instant Pot / Multi-cooker Some multi-cookers have a porridge setting and can have your jook ready in under ten minutes. If there’s no porridge setting, use the manual setting and make sure the pressure release valve is set to “sealing.”
Rice Cooker Some rice cookers also have a porridge setting. If yours doesn’t have a porridge setting, add the full water amount called for in your congee recipe and cook for one cycle (it will take longer than a regular rice cycle because of the large amount of water). If it’s too soupy after one cycle, you can cook it for one more cycle.