As small, good things go, congee rates a spot in my practical culinary canon.
Congee is a silky-smooth porridge of white rice, with the grains cooked to absolute disintegration, beloved by babies and dyspeptics.
For gastronomes, it’s known best as the basis for breakfast, augmented by scraps of this-and-that, such as pickled vegetables, cabbage shreds, leftover chicken, seafood, Chinese sausage, tofu, mushrooms, 1,000-year-old eggs or much younger soft-cooked fresh ones.
You get the picture: almost anything goes. This is how I first experienced it in Hong Kong, where in Cantonese it is known as jook or juk.
I was reintroduced to congee after a couple of days of serious Yuletide prandial overindulgence in the home of friends, Zack and Laura Paradis, along with Zita and Renzo, their unflinching 10- and 6-year-olds.
Laura, the Houston-born daughter of Chinese expats, gracefully and effortlessly conjured up bowls of warm, soothing congee surrounded by offerings of “many wonders” (a favorite euphemism for leftovers), plus raw and pickled odds and ends.
We enjoyed this thoughtful meal as much or more as the exotic bucatini con ricci di mare (pasta with sea urchin) or Zack’s amazing venison Wellington that we had been feasting on for days. For congee is above all else comfort food, which is what we’re in dire need of in this season of snow and ice.
The recipe, if you can call it that, for congee is forgiving and open to interpretation, with a ratio of rice to liquid ranging from 1-to-7 here to 1-to-10. The liquid itself can be water (which doesn’t mask the perfumed fragrance of jasmine rice), or stock (vegetable, chicken or otherwise). The rice can be long, medium or short-grain. Brown rice has even been mooted, and Laura mentioned attempting one with black “forbidden” rice.
The additions are up to you. This starter version offers soy sauce-mirin marinated chicken, stir-fried with garlic and ginger, with sliced fresh shitake mushrooms and sliced bok choy getting the same treatment.
The congee needs two hours to soak and cook, allowing you ample time to prep the chicken, vegetables and garnishes, cooking them in the congee’s final 20 minutes or so to hit the table warm and fresh.
Bonus tip: Laura, an accomplished professional working mother, tends to cook extra congee, refrigerating the excess for 4 to 5 days and reheating it stovetop with additional water to thin it out, for quick weeknight dinners, topped with, say, spinach or kimchi and a fried egg.
For a deeper dive, consult the experts, particularly Grace Young and Fuchsia Dunlop, whose cookbooks and writing are a treasure of Chinese cooking, as is the New Jersey-based website, TheWoksofLife.com.
Congee with Chicken, Mushrooms & Bok Choy
Congee, master recipe
- ¾ cup rice (organic jasmine long grain)
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons oil (peanut, canola or some other flavorless oil)
- 5 cups water (or chicken or vegetable stock, or a combination of any)
Rinse the rice well and drain. Toss with salt and oil and let sit for ½ hour. In a 3½-to-4-quart saucepan (with lid) bring 5 cups of water or stock to a boil over high heat. Add rice and return to a boil, lower heat and partially cover, simmering the rice for 1½ hours, whisking occasionally (every 10 minutes or so) to achieve a silky smooth consistency.
For the chicken, shitake and bok choy
- 3 cloves garlic, grated or minced fine
- A thumb-sized knuckle of ginger, grated or peeled, smashed and minced fine
- 3 tablespoons soy sauce
- 3 tablespoons mirin
- 1 teaspoon cornstarch
- oil (peanut, canola or some other flavorless oil) for cooking
- 1½ cup bok choy, green and white parts chopped into bite-sized pieces
- 3 scallions, bias-sliced thin, white and green parts reserved separately
- 5 to 6 shitake, white button or oyster mushroom caps, sliced thin
- One large boneless, skinless chicken breast or thigh, sliced thin
- Garnishes for serving
- ¼ cup chopped roasted peanuts
- Ginger, cut into small matchsticks
- Toasted sesame oil for drizzling
While the congee cooks, whisk the garlic, ginger, soy sauce, mirin and cornstarch. In a small bowl, toss the chicken with a couple of tablespoons of the soy-mirin sauce. Set aside to marinate.
About 20 minutes before the congee is done, heat a splash of oil in a small wok or saute pan over medium-high heat. Stir-fry the bok choy and reserved white parts of the scallions until cooked (about 3 minutes) and add a tablespoon of the soy-mirin sauce and toss to coat. Reserve in a small bowl and keep warm.
In the same pan, heat a splash more of the oil and saute the mushrooms until just colored; add a splash of the soy-mirin sauce, toss to coat and reserve to another bowl and keep warm.
Heat a splash more oil in the pan and saute the chicken, tossing until done (about 3 to 4 minutes). Reserve and keep warm.
To serve, portion the congee into individual serving bowls and top with the bok choy, mushrooms and chicken. Garnish with peanuts, scallion greens and ginger matchsticks. Finish with a drizzle of sesame oil.