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Congee: The Ultimate Winter Comfort Food

I once lived with an Eastern European man (whom I count as one of my closest friends) who routinely ate porridge with feta and boiled eggs as a meal. We fought bitterly over the reasonable limits that you could push oats to. I felt strongly at the time that porridge shouldn't be savoury.

I was very, very wrong. Huge parts of the world cook grains like oats and rice until soft before adding a delightful arrangement of savoury toppings. That is essentially what congee is: rice porridge. It's been eaten for more than 3000 years in South and East Asian cultures.

This simple dish is typically eaten for breakfast or served to the young, the elderly, and the sick. It's easy to digest and can be loaded up with healthy ingredients, making it an ideal comfort meal for the approaching cold months (and any accompanying bouts of the sniffles).

This is also a great meal for using up bits and bobs that are lurking in the back of the fridge - remember that next time you're at month's end and you need to make pantry soup.

First question: what am I getting from the store?

The base of congee is rice cooked in broth for a long time. So, anything else that you add is a topping that you can customise according to what you feel like eating or, if you're like me, what needs shifting from the graveyard section of the refrigerator or freezer.

Here's what I bought from the store:

  • White sushi rice - my internet research assured me that sushi rice was the best kind to make congee, but I'm confident that jasmine rice would also fare well

  • Red chillis

  • A new tin of Funky Ouma sea salt

  • I wanted green onion but had to settle for radish sprouts as a topping

What I rescued from my fridge/freezer/pantry:

  • Leftover chicken stock from a chicken soup I made earlier in the week (a litre of store-bought stock will also do nicely)

  • A jar of kimchi

  • Quality soy sauce

  • Sesame seed oil

  • Black sesame seeds

  • An egg

Here is my beautiful homemade chicken stock (chef's kiss).

And here is my very naughty jar of kimchi.

Okay. Now onto the method of making this criminally simple dish.

How to cook perfect congee

Congee is dead simple, but it does take some time to come together. This is a dish that you prepare with a few hours to spare - this ain't no fifteen minute fix, folks. The secret to good rice in general is this: washing.

Step One: Wash your rice

Wash. Your. Rice. People.

This is how I do it. I measure a cup of sushi rice into a pot and cover with water. I'll leave it to have a bath for fifteen to twenty minutes while I prepare my mise en place. You know - chopping, wiping, spraying down, having a cigarette, preparing the perfect podcast as a backdrop to my culinary adventures. You do you.

This is how cloudy the water is when the rice has been sitting for about fifteen minutes:

So that's kind of what you should be looking for.

Okay, now drain your rice and wash it again. You don't have to let it sit for twenty minutes each round, but you do need to keep cleaning the rice until the water runs clear. It takes about five rounds of rinsing to get my rice to be this clear:

When that looks right, it's time to drain the rice and prepare to boil it.

Step Two: Cook the rice for approximately two millenia

Normally I'd be a lot more fussy about how much water you should be putting in your rinsed rice to cook with because it affects the texture, but this time we are actively trying to achieve overcooked rice.

I started cooked it by adding two cups of chicken broth to my one cup of rice and kept adding more stock when the mixture became solid. When I ran out of stock, I simply added water and tasted the congee periodically to adjust for salt. If you're using powdered stock, you should do the same! Taste, taste, taste. It's essential.

Youll know your congee is ready when it reaches the consistency of cooked porridge. That took about an hour and a half for my cup of thoroughly rinsed rice.

A note on salt

Some of the things that separate talented chefs from bumbling home cooks: using salt and tasting the dish. When you add your salt at the end of the cooking process, your dish will be salty. When you add salt at different stages of cooking, your dish will be seasoned. The only way to know whether a dish has enough salt in it before it is served is to taste it.

So, get to know your ingredients. I knew that my broth was pretty salty because I salted the chicken before I cooked it and I salted the stock while it was cooking down with the salted chicken skin and bones. But I still added some when I was cooking my rice. It's kind of like adding generations of salt into a dish - the layers and complexity are what give it flavour. Try it.

This is what my congee looked like when it was done.

Step Three: Add your toppings and serve

Next, I spooed my hot congee into a bowl and baptised it with a splash of soy sauce and a few shakes of sesame oil. I also cracked in a soft-boiled egg for protein, some radish sprouts for pepperiness (though I would recommend green onion if you can get your hands on it), kimchi for more flavour and probiotics, black sesame seeds, and fresh red chillis.

You can add whatever the hell you want in there. Here are some fantasy additions from the inside of my head to yours:

  • Shredded nori seaweed

  • Leftover chicken

  • Furikake seasoning

  • Crispy fried onions

  • Edamame beans

  • Pickled vegetables

  • Fresh radishes

I mean, the possibilities are endless. Make a congee that makes you feel good.

Happy eating! Love, Life & Style.


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