Congee: the rice-based Chinese porridge dish never really occurred to me as “porridge” growing up, as I merely knew it as 粥 or jook: the thick, rice-y soup that we always had at my grandma’s breakfast table after landing in Hong Kong on biannual trips to my parents’ home city, accompanied by one too many jau tiu (to the disapproval of my mom).
My own experience and memories of congee are a tradition of my Hong Kong diet growing up, as the first hearty meal in Hong Kong that my family gathered to eat around the table. But outside of personal experiences congee is also a staple in the Chinese diet — not only as a breakfast, but also as lunch; dinner; teatime meal; comfort dish; dish to eat when you’re sick; dish for the young, elderly, or those otherwise lacking chewing faculties; cure for illness when tiger balm and white flower oil don’t suffice; and the Chinese version of the Western BRAT diet suggested by doctors and WebMD alike when you’re having explosive diarrhea.
Congee certainly falls under the universal textbook definition of porridge across cultures. But I never perceived congee as such, partly because the word porridge inherently represents Western ideas of the dish (as evidenced by the name in English itself) to which I compare congee. The other part is that the word “porridge” is largely used with reference to oat porridge or oatmeal which I consider to be quite different from congee, considering its use throughout history an the nature of cooking.
Cooking methods and the nature of congee
Oatmeal or porridge has undergone phases of varying use in the West, such as the intensive branding and commodification of the dish in the modernist era evidenced by the masses of a certain rosy-cheeked, white-haired gentleman with a black hat smiling from boxes on supermarket shelves. This is a starting point for where my understanding of congee differs from porridge. There are certainly some unsavory-looking brands of “instant congee” out there, of which I only became aware after doing a quick Google search. However, congee has always been, and will be, a dish that is either made in the home or by restaurants—in particular, the jook pos (congee shops) that specialize in congee as one of the main menu items, and serve it day and night.
This leads me another point: just as congee is an everyday staple, so it is also a sort of “specialty” dish. Congee at its most basic is rice mixed with water; but the standard (and the best-tasting) congees served at jook pohs are the results of complex recipes and hours of simmering, after which various savory ingredients such as salt pork, preserved egg, or fish are then added for the final varieties of the dish served. There are also hundreds of types of congee made with different grains, from rice to millet and beans.
The heart of congee lies in its soup base for which every jook poh has a secret recipe. I’m no congee connoisseur but from my understanding, congee base consists of a myriad of ingredients such as pork bone (yep, watch out vegetarians), lotus seed, and other foods and plants of the sea. I haven’t gone around to any jook pohs and asked for further clarification, but I imagine my questions would be met with a look of disapproval. Jook pohs pride themselves on their house congee base recipes that make the flavor of congee so hearty and complex. The flavor of congee is much more difficult to dissect than that of Western porridge, which either uses water or various forms of milk (or liquids that call themselves milk) for sweet porridge, and perhaps chicken broth for a savory porridge. The taste of congee has a familiar standard taste, but it is also impossible for the non-congee connoisseur like myself to pinpoint exactly what goes in it. There are, of course, standard recipes for at home congee-making, but it is the complexity and deliciousness of congee that makes certain jook pohs renowned for their congee recipes and frequently visited by locals, such as Law Fu Kee in Hong Kong.
(As a side note, congee is also frequently served with yau tiu, the deep-fried dough sticks that I mentioned earlier, an addition that is absent from western porridge consumption.)
The prominence of jook pohs and their distinct mouth-watering congee recipes in congee consumption culture within Chinese society is a marked difference from how porridge or oatmeal is consumed in Western society: as a quick-cook dish eaten hurriedly at the breakfast table. It sounds strange for a restaurant to specialize in oatmeal, or for designer oatmeals to hit the shelves.
…but wait a minute, post modernist porridge has arrived.
The postmodernist glamorization of porridge is another facet of the dish that distances it from congee. With booming health trends and emphasis on outing processed sugars, reducing high glycemic carbs, and increasing consumption of whole, organic, fair-trade, vegan, non-GMO, locally sourced, gluten-free, guilty-free fare, Western porridge has been revamped to cater to new tastes. Porridge is now also posh, according to The Guardian, with famous chefs such as Jamie Oliver and Nigel Slater concocting their own home porridge recipes. Porridge brands have presented healthier and more appealing versions of the dish boasting organic oats and wholesome ingredients, to be nestled among spirulina powder, kombucha, and cactus water in a Whole Foods shopping basket.
In the last few years porridge has been absorbed into the array of upscale health foods with unjustifiably high prices (unjustifiable, that is, until you experience the wholesomeness of eating it). This has expanded beyond Whole Foods shelves and recipe books into trendy porridge restaurants that serve a variety of in-house porridge with an array of locally-sourced organic superfood toppings. One is Grød in Copenhagen — which I admittedly eagerly lined up for last year — with others around the world following suit such as 26 Grains in London.
These speciality porridge restaurants would bear resemblance to the jook pohs of Chinese society, but for the obvious elements of hype and healthy-eating obsessiveness driving the porridge craze. Postmodernist porridge — bougie porridge — is targeted towards a specific demographic: those who are both financially capable and willing to frequently spend $9-12 on a bowl of oats and amaranth that they could also make at home. There is undoubtedly an elitist element separates this bougie porridge from the ordinary porrdige that is made for the masses, the former of which would turn up their nose at the latter. These fancy porridges are also hip and socially trendy to consume, fitting in right next to açai bowls as a nutritious post-yoga breakfast.
There is no such transformation or similar function of congee as it is consumed in Chinese society. No doubt there are some forms of bougie congees in Hong Kong that add black truffle, king crab, or other expensive ingredients served in fine dining Chinese restaurants, which perhaps reflects Hong Kong society’s obsession with luxury and elitism more than the congee itself. However, the average congee is still cheap — around $3-5 a bowl at most — and jook pohs will forever remain undecidedly glamorous.
Shoveling thick spoonfuls of preserved egg and salted pork congee into your mouth while hunched on a metal stool, listening to the cashier yell orders to the cooks over the din of outside street noise and general kitchen cacophony—this is how congee is eaten, how it is experienced by Hong Kongers. There are no socioeconomic stratifications in its consumption as it is eaten by all, and not particularly sought out for its healthy or glamorous traits. The concept of congee as glamorized or trendy seems odd. To me it is unfathomable to eat congee in a setting other than a simple restaurant with glass topped tables and metal chairs, while a grumpy middle-aged man or woman with thinning hair plunks down a bowl of it in front you; or simply eating it out of a foam container at home. There are no Yelp or Google reviews of congee restaurants, no wholesome superfood ingredients, no features in hip food publications — unless TimeOut decides to be edgy and document The 10 Best Local Congee Shops in Hong Kong (well, they probably already have). Jook pohs widely become known through word of mouth and are just known.
The only glamorization would possibly be if congee were appropriated by Western society as a trendy ethnic porridge — but with white rice as a processed, relatively nutritionless, high-glycemic carb? Unfathomable.