I love congee made in a Chinese clay cooking pot in the middle of Winter, cooked on a lazy Sunday afternoon. A large batch is sometimes cooked and stored in the fridge. In this way it is available night and day, for late night suppers or early morning breakfast. Congee was once a very popular dish but it has fallen out of fashion. We have been making it since 2003, and thankfully it has not fallen out of fashion in our household. In China, congee is eaten for breakfast or as an all day snack. Plain congee is served with lots of different condiments to sprinkle over it, and often with a fried dough stick.
There are lots of congee recipes around – almost every Asian cookbook you pick up has one in it. I first cooked it at home as I loved the late night congee in Sydney’s China Town. So good. Short grain rice is best. One cup of rice made a huge amount – enough for 4 – 6 bowls of it. So be careful the first time that you make it to ensure that you are not making enough for your whole suburb!!! Congee can be eaten at any time of the day – it has become a popular breakfast food for Southern Chinese and midnight snacks for Singaporeans & Malaysians. So eat it first thing, last thing, or anywhere in between.
Congee Bowls, in our household, are bowls of congee topped with a range of delicious accompaniments – herbs, tofu, bean sprouts, peanuts, crispy onions and garlic, steamed beans, mushrooms, Asian greens – the list is endless and any combination can be used, depending on the season, the weather, your mood, the time of day and the available ingredients. Congee flavour is always up to you!
Congee is eaten throughout Asia, from Japan right down to Indonesia. Each one varies a little from the others, but all are made with boiled rice, lentils or beans. However, the name for this dish originated in India – from the Tamil kanji. Perhaps also from the Telugu and Kannada gañji, the Malayalam kanni and the Urdu ganji. All meaning, more or less, boiling. The earliest reference can be traced back to the Zhou dynasty (circa 1000BC). It is also mentioned in the Chinese Record of Rites (1st century AD) and noted in Pliny’s account of India circa AD77.
Similar recipes include Barley, Millet and Mung Congee, Rice, Millet and Lentil Congee, Sweet Congee with Poached Oranges, Red Rice with Adzuki Beans Congee, Cracked Wheat and Mung Dal Kitchari, and Quinoa Porridge.
This recipe is one of the vegetarian recipes from our first blog which was in existence from 1995 – 2006. You can explore more of the Retro Recipes series, our vegetarian recipes from that first blog.
Preparing and Using your Chinese Clay Pot
If you decide to purchase a Chinese clay cooking pot from your Chinese grocery store, there are a few things you should know. They are delicate cooking pots, but they do make a difference when cooking congee. They add a warm earthiness to the dish which is not possible with other cookware.
Firstly, soak the pot in water for 24 hours before use. I soak a new pot in a filled kitchen sink overnight, then during the day when the sink is in use, I leave it filled with water and the lid sitting upside down. Then I soak in a filled sink again overnight. If it has not been used for an extended period, soak it again using this same method.
Secondly, never ever ever subject the pot to high heat (and that includes dish washers – I have found them far too tough on these clay pots). Use your lowest burner on a medium heat to bring to a simmer, then a low heat to cook. I will use a heat diffuser too, to keep the congee only just at a simmering point. If you see congee recipes advising you to cook congee for 45 minutes on a rapid boil, then use a saucepan rather than a clay pot.
The beauty of low heat cooking is that you can leave the rice to cook for an extended period (checking the water levels periodically). I am known to leave it bubbling away for hours on a Sunday afternoon.
To make your Congee Bowl, first make the congee or rice porridge (it takes a few hours), then add your choice of flavourings, and finally top with your choice of toppings to add textural and flavour variations.
Don’t forget to make a Rainbow Congee Bowl – with (almost) all the colours of the rainbow.
1 cup short or medium grain rice, rinsed very well
8 cups water (if your pan is small, add 4 cups first, then top up during cooking)
sea salt to taste
flavourings (your choice of…)
Chinese red vinegar
Chinese black vinegar
toasted sesame oil
sweet soy sauce
ginger paste – mash some fresh ginger
garlic paste – mash a garlic clove or two
a shot of sweet chilli sauce
chilli jam or chilli paste
toppings (choose your combination)
pickled ginger slices
crispy garlic slices
crispy ginger slices
crispy fried onions/shallots
unsalted peanuts (raw peanuts are best)
slices of radish or daikon, or finely chopped
slices of young ginger
chilli-black bean sauce
quick pickled daikon
Chinese pickled mustard greens
shredded Chinese pickled radish
chunky, crispy Chinese chilli oil
sliced spring onions
snow peas, sliced
fresh chillies sliced
dried shiitake mushrooms, reconstituted, sliced
grilled King Oyster mushrooms
angel hair chilli
Place the rinsed rice into a heavy pot – choose a deep thick base pot, something that will conduct heat evenly.
Chinese clay cooking pots are ideal. Add the water and slowly bring to a simmer over a low heat. Cook over the lowest heat for 1.5 hours – 2 hours (or up to 5 hours, depending on your pot, amount of rice and your desired thickness of congee), stirring every 20 – 30 minutes to prevent sticking. Add more water as necessary.
Cook until the desired consistency is reached – thick and creamy, disintegrated rice, or medium thickness with some grains remaining, or thin like a soup with rice grains. Add salt to taste.
Now it is time to flavour your congee. You can do this in individual bowls, or in a large serving bowl. Choose your flavourings from the list above (or free wheel it with some of your own). I love to add red and black vinegars, soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic paste and white pepper.
Now it is time for the toppings. Begin layering your choice of toppings, choosing some for flavour and some for crunch and texture.
Your Congee Bowl is ready.
recipe notes and alternatives
Add the following to the rice as it is cooking: 1 cardamom leaf, or piece of pandanus leaf or banana leaf (if available), or sliced dried shiitake mushrooms. For Japanese flavourings, use a piece of kombu or wakame (all optional).
The mark of a good bowl of Cantonese-style congee is the silky-smooth texture of the porridge. They say that Beancurd skin is the secret ingredient to ensuring the texture of each bowl of congee comes out right. Adding some beancurd skin helps to make the rice grains mushy, and thus easier to cook down to a smooth consistency. It also adds flavour to the congee. Beancurd skin can be found in any Asian grocery.
Once you have mastered the art of making congee, experiment with cooking the congee in different stocks. I am a great fan of juicing vegetables and incorporating them in cooking liquids. I also love to puree a tomato and use with the water in congee.
Other Congee Bowls
You can find these recipes here. Some might not yet be published.