When it comes to comfort food, my partner and I face a cultural
divide. I love travelling and relish opportunities to sample new
flavours, but when I’m feeling down, I revert to my small town,
Anglo-Canadian roots. I eat chicken noodle soup for a cold, mac and
cheese to ease a hangover and dill pickle chips to cure the
My fiancÃ© will have none of this. Toronto born and bred, he
comes from a Chinese family. He craves his comfort in golden cubes
of fried tofu, fat-crusted chunks of BBQ pork, curly ramen noodles
and fiery fried squid. For the most part we have agreed to disagree
on which dishes best soothe a sorry soul-with one exception. He has
taught me to make congee, a simple rice porridge enjoyed all over
Asia, and I love it.
Congee is simple to make and infinitely customizable. It’s
thick, nourishing and warm: the perfect antidote for rainy days and
a delicious balm for the blues. It also makes a mean breakfast.
There are two schools of though when it comes to making congee.
One school dictates using new, uncooked grains, while the other
utilizes leftover rice. Like my man, I’m of the second school-we
always seem to have extra rice in the cooker, and making congee is
a delicious way to give it a second life.
To make congee, put a large volume of water and a small amount
of rice in a pot, at a water-to-rice ratio of about 10:1. Trust me
on this-it takes very little rice to make a thick, even gruel. To
add more flavour to your concoction, consider substituting broth
for water, or adding large slices of ginger, bay leaves and a few
dried mushrooms. Roasted meat bones, tiny dried anchovies or salty
dried shrimp are also good flavour starters. Next, set the pot on
low heat, cover, and let the rice and water begin their union.
Simmer for 1 to 2 hours, stirring occasionally and adding water if
the liquid gets too thick.
Although the finished product is relatively bland, there are
several ways to enhance congee. I like topping mine with soy sauce,
sesame oil, spring onions, a sliced preserved egg and a smidge of
fuyu (wet bean curd, a very pungent fermented tofu). Alternate
toppings include chili oil, oyster sauce, fried tofu, boiled egg,
smoked duck or cooked pieces of seafood, poultry or meat. Because
basic congee is so plain, you can really play with flavours,
customizing the porridge to your liking. You can also experiment
with different varieties of rice.
I’ve inherited these recipes from my Cantonese family, but there
are as many ways to make congee as there are people in Asia. While
Koreans might add squash or black sesame powder to the basic
recipe, Malaysians often season their porridge with peanuts and
coriander. In Vietnam congee is called chao and usually comes
topped with mint, coriander and Thai basil. Filipinos flavour
theirs with lemongrass, garlic and ginger.
Whether you enjoy it in sickness or in health, for breakfast or
for lunch, as a complete meal or a start, congee marries comfort,
health and flavour and is sure to make you feel good.
Devon grew up in rural Ontario, where she was thoroughly
teased for enjoying exotic treats like sushi and avocado. Following
her stomach’s lead, she escaped to Asia, spending the next 4 years
stuffing herself with fish, noodles, curries and kimchi. This
cavalier attitude to food resulted in several bouts of street-food
poisoning. To cure her ailing stomach and a strong case of cheese
deprivation, Devon settled in Toronto, where she now safely enjoys
sampling treats from across the globe. Devon will eat anything
except roasted silkworm and bananas.