For Asian Americans, congee is often comfort food when you're sick. As the child of a Filipino immigrant, I ate congee that my mother prepared when I couldn't keep down anything else. It was a plain meal, for better or worse, that warmed the whole body and left you craving more.
When I asked my aunt in Manila to share her method of cooking rice porridge for this story, she responded, "Why congee?" There's been a heightened interest in the dish online recently, perhaps because we're all seeking comfort in new ways in this pandemic.
Here, four Asian American cooks (and my own tita) share their approaches to traditional rice porridge — which goes by many names around the world, like juk in Korea, bubur in Indonesia and cháo in Vietnam — and what it means to them.
What is congee?
While many Asian cultures have at least one version of rice porridge, today, the term "congee" commonly refers to the Chinese dish, though it's actually an English term derived from the word "kanji" from the Tamil language of Ancient India. Congee is often eaten at breakfast or as a snack throughout the day, New York City-based cookbook author Grace Young told TODAY Food.
The base for all of the different porridges highlighted here is rice — cooked and rinsed, or uncooked and rinsed and soaked — and hot water or broth. Each chef has individual ideas of the best liquid, how long to cook the rice and their favorite toppings.
"Really what you're doing … is dissolving the rice in the water," Young explained. The traditional benefit of doing so is maximizing the number of servings those grains can produce.
"So much of Chinese cooking is so practical and comes from a place of making the most out of very little," she added, stressing that congee is "super simple" and "nourishing. … It doesn't take a lot of practice to make."
Namiko Hirasawa Chen & Okayu
Namiko Hirasawa Chen, founder of the popular Japanese food blog Just One Cookbook, told TODAY that in Japan, there are different names for each version of okayu based on the water-rice ratio you use. Her preferred is 50 grams of rice to 250 milliliters of water.
Traditionally, okayu is made in and eaten out of a Japanese clay pot, donabe, which maintains the heat longer and spreads it out, she said. When you add the rice to the water, stir the rice a lot initially so it doesn't stick to the bottom or burn. Then you can cover it, but leave space to vent the steam.
Okayu is often eaten plain, she said, but you can stir an egg into the hot porridge or top it with pickled plums (umeboshi) for saltiness. Hirasawa Chen said to use only Japanese short-grain rice for this dish.
"Rice is a very important part of Japanese cuisine," she stressed. "I think it's nice that all people learn different ways to eat it."
Grace Young & Jook
Young uses the Cantonese word "jook" to refer to rice porridge, and her favorite way to make it, she said, is to use a homemade chicken broth.
Her mother's trick was to add a little oil to the rice-soaking process, and she cooks it for two to three hours until "you can't identify the individual grains of rice." But the exact time depends on how you like your congee.
In her family, the toppings were typically cooked chicken breast or thinly sliced raw cod, which cooks when you ladle the porridge over it. She also adds sliced lettuce and cilantro sprigs, or a scallion and ginger mixture that she preps separately in hot oil for just 30 seconds, until fragrant.
Young said that it's actually common in Chinese American households to make congee with turkey the day after Thanksgiving. She also was told congee has "cleansing" properties because "there's not much to it." Her mom and aunties would eat congee when they were dieting, she added.
"For me, I think of jook as pure comfort food," Young said.
Kanchan Koya & Khichdi
In India, the plain rice porridge known as kanji (where the word "congee" comes from, you'll recall) is typically made with rice, but it can be made with other grains, too. There are many dishes like kanji found across different regions of India — like khichdi or khichuri — that employ the method of cooking down grains with lots of water, perhaps adding a pinch of salt or other seasonings.
In addition to rice and water, khichdi's base comprises lentils, which add "creaminess and a little bite," Kanchan Koya, founder of food blog Spice Spice Baby, told TODAY. Khichdi can also include a range of spices, usually cumin seeds and turmeric at a minimum, but masala khichdi will often layer in "aromatic spices," such as cloves, cinnamon stick, curry leaves or mustard seed, she said.
The dish itself is a "very ancient" remedy for gut health in Ayurvedic medicine, which comes from the Indian subcontinent and dates back 5,000 years, Koya explained. Today, it's usually made from white rice (though quinoa has become a popular, more nutritious alternative) and yellow split lentils or whole green lentils. "People play around with the kind of lentil," she added.
Khichdi is also "amenable to additions," and it's common to prepare it with whatever veggies you have on hand, like eggplant, peas, carrots, potato or green beans, "nothing too heavy," to make "an elevated, one-pot meal," Koya said. She recommended using a pressure cooker, and some of her favorite toppings include yogurt and pickled mango.
"It's something I grew up eating in India," she recalled. "Khichdi was always served if you'd had a few days of a little bit of too much heavy eating. … I also have memories of it being a celebratory, really vibrant, flavorful dish with all this space action."
Sonoko Sakai & Zosui
California-based cooking teacher and food writer Sonoko Sakai said zosui, a Japanese rice porridge, is often the finishing dish after a hot pot, an interactive Asian cooking method that involves sitting around a communal pot of soup and throwing raw ingredients into it.
But without a hot pot, she makes a dashi stock with bonito, dried fish flakes, as the base of her zosui, she told TODAY. She lets it steep for a few minutes and strains it before adding other ingredients, like mushrooms, soy sauce or mirin for sweetness. The cooked rice goes in last, only for a few minutes.
The finishing touch is swirling in a raw egg or two with the lid covered, and adding scallions, a dash of chili pepper or toasted, ground sesame seeds, for serving. The texture of this dish is supposed to be "soupy," Sakai added, but for extra thickness, you can throw in a little cornstarch or potato starch into the broth.
Sakai said she's been struck by how the American palate for rice has expanded recently: "It's amazing that American culture is starting to embrace a variety of rice," she said. "Diversity is playing itself out."
Tita Marisa & Lugaw
After I made congee over Zoom with my mom in Delaware and my aunt in Manila, the hints of ginger and garlic, absent from my congee memories until last week, brought me back to the kitchen table at my childhood home. Unlike other rice porridges, our lugaw, the Tagalog word for it, aka arroz caldo, started with sautéing minced garlic and sliced ginger in a pot with oil until fragrant, per my Tita Marissa's recipe.
Next, we added the uncooked rice directly to the mixture before adding the liquid — the water the rice had soaked in with a chicken bouillon cube once it started boiling. We also dropped in some raw chicken morsels and Filipino fish sauce, called patis, and cooked it all for around 40 minutes.
For toppings, I used sliced scallion and a medium-boiled egg with an extra drizzle of patis. My mom opted for crunched-up chicharrón, fried pork rinds, a common Filipino snack, and I was beyond jealous I didn't have any on hand. My lugaw was filling but light, smooth but with a little chewiness, salty and sweet. I heaped as much patis-drenched yolk on a spoon with creamy rice, juicy chicken and fresh scallion as I could.
That single cup of rice fed my boyfriend and me for two days. We added the same toppings each time. Why mess with perfection? Each time I curled up on the couch with a hot bowl, I felt myself recover just a little bit from whatever had plagued me that day. Congee isn't just sick food to me anymore — it's also connection in a time when we need it the most.