Is congee a rice dish or a soup dish? A visitor once wrote me asking about a recipe for a Chinese thick rice soup made from rice and minced pork. I was quite puzzled at first. Thick soup? With just rice and pork? What can that be?
It took me a few days to realise that he meant pork congee 肉粥 (rou zhou). It was quite an A-HA moment because I am so familiar with it as a rice dish that it never occur to me that others might treat it as a thick soup. Come to think of it, thick soups made from lentil and pumpkin have similar texture and consistency. (^ _^)
I sympathize with non-chinese speakers who have to contend with so many Chinese dialects, different transliterations and name variations found in Chinese cuisine.
All 3 names refer to rice cooked in a lot of water to form a thick or creamy consistency.
The most accurate English name should be rice porridge. But in various parts of China and places with Chinese diaspora, there are many variations in the names as well as how the rice porridge is made and served.
Jook/Juk is the English transliteration of the Cantonese name for rice porridge. It resembles a thick rice soup and ingredients like minced meat or seafood are served in the porridge, making it a one-dish meal. The proliferation of Cantonese-styled restaurants in the West also means that this is the most familiar version of rice porridge to non-chinese.
Travellers to Southeast Asia will have encountered other types of rice porridge such as the Teochew/chiu chow plain rice porridge, the Hokkien sweet potato porridge and the Teochew fish porridge, especially in Singapore. There are also the Japanese okayu, the Korean juk, the Thai jok, and the Filipino lugao and the rice pudding (albeit sweet).
I think congee came from the Indian language because the Indians have a similar rice dish called ganji except it is supposed to be grainer and sweet. The way I see it, the British went to India and encountered <strong>ganji</strong>. Then they arrived in China and met jook. The similarity between the ganji and jook was noticed and "congee" was born (this is mere speculation, please do not cite me).
A lot of food sites and articles on the Chinese rice porridge tend to use congee as an overall term to refer to all types of rice porridge. It is a catchy name compared to "Chinese rice porridge".
Chinese jook is a very forgiving dish. It doesn't matter if you are a great cook or a rookie. It is a wonderful Chinese food. Have it sweet or savoury, thick or thin, luxurious or simple. It is up to you.
It has a long history of use as dietary therapy. Some of the oldest Chinese imperial records have mentions of it as being a premier health food. Its healing power is entrenches in the Chinese collective memory. One day, I caught myself offering to buy some for a colleague when she wasn't feeling well. It is really the first thing that popped into my mind. When we are sick, we eat Chinese rice porridge. Period.
Chinese Rice porridge is for the poor too. It was served in times of drought and famine where food are hard to come by. Legend has it that during the rule of Emperor Yong Zheng of the Qing dynasty, a famine broke out. He ordered his officials to make rice porridge and distribute to the starving people. Corrupt officials would skimp on the rice and distribute very watery versions. When the Emperor heard about this, he set a standard that the porridge must be so thick that when a pair of chopsticks was inserted, it stays upright. Any officials who fail this standard was beheaded. :P
Chinese jook was also served during funerals because it is simple and plain, and suits times of grief and mourning.
Now, it has become a popular breakfast food for Southern Chinese and midnight snacks for Singaporeans & Malaysians. There are so many ways to eat it. Plain rice porridge with fried dough-sticks 油条 (you tiao) or a huge bowl of Cantonese jook with fresh seafood and exotic ingredients like the century egg.
It can be part of a meal where several dishes of food is eaten together with it. Or, it can be a one-meal porridge. Just "dump" all the ingredients together and splash some soy sauce, sesame seed oil and pepper.
Many Chinese mothers would make a big pot and add all kinds of wonderful and nourishing ingredients for their babies, young children, and family members who are sick or are elderly.
In Singapore, it is one of the first semi-solid food babies eat after milk. Add ingredients like mashed carrot, white fish, finely chopped green leafy vegetables to increase the flavour and increase the nutritious value.
I have yet to meet a baby that doesn't like rice porridge. However, try not to feed it plain to your baby. They can tell that you are trying to wing it.
Use bone stocks to prepare your jook to add additional calcium and iron to your baby's diet. This is especially important if your baby starts to develop lactose intolerance.
People who are ill or are recovering from an illness usually have poor appetite. Take it as recuperating food to improve appetite and provide much needed nutrients.
If you have diarrhoea and vomiting, you should try taking some plain rice porridge. It will hold down better, eases the diarrhoea and replenish lost fluids. I will always make some nice hot rice porridge when I have diarrhoea. Try brown rice jook. They seem especially good for diarrhoea.
Rice porridge and other rice dishes are good alternative food for celiacs, people who are allergic to gluten. I have compiled a list of rice soup recipes that I think are gluten-free
There are many ways to cook this thick rice soup so this topic deserves its own page - Learn how to cook rice porridge.
I have received some queries from visitors about what type or brand of rice to use. I usually use medium to long grain white rice grown in Thailand. It is commonly known as fragrant rice or jasmine rice in Singapore. I don't think you can find the same brands in your locations so I won't mention the local brands here. The closest I can find online is Dynasty Rice Jasmine.
Some of you have asked about using brown rice to make congee. This is possible but the grains will take longer to cook and require more water. Alternatively, soak overnight to shorten the cooking time. Again, use medium grain brown rice.
I hope you have enjoyed reading this little piece on congee. Click here for a list of congee recipes.