China's most comforting food: the flexible, delectable rice dish
August 16, 2021
To name the ultimate Chinese comfort foods, congee is the first thing that comes to mind for many people.
Congee can be a speedy breakfast to boost the stomach and body in the morning, or a quick fix in the evening that's light and fulfilling. It's also the food people reach for when they don't feel well, as congee is warm, mild and easy on the body.
Classic congee is made with nothing more than rice and water, and a small amount of rice goes a long way when making it. After bringing the pot to a boil, turn down the heat and let it cook slowly until the rice kernels "pop." The longer it's cooked, the thicker it gets.
There are infinite combinations to customize the simple staple, such as adding root vegetables like sweet potatoes, taro, yams and pumpkin, and other grains like Job's tears, oats, buckwheat and barley. These ingredients also significantly elevate its nutritional value, in part because they increase the fiber content.
Congee can also be savory. Chopped green vegetables can be cooked in rice congee with or without meat. Congee featuring greens, protein and cereal is a nutritious, easy to digest meal. To make more sumptuous congee, rich meat like pork ribs can be stewed in advance and then boiled.
In Cantonese cuisine, there are classic, savory congee dishes like pidan and pork, beef, fish and pork liver. Tingzaizhou is an umami recipe where things like dried scallops, fish, squid and pork are cooked in rice congee and topped with bites of fried dough stick and egg roll shreds.
Millet congee is another crowd favorite, well known for soothing and comforting the stomach, so many people choose to eat it as a healing food. It can be made quickly by boiling a pot of water, adding millet and cooking it for five to 10 minutes while stirring it constantly.
Plain millet congee is mild and natural tasting. To elevate the flavor, cubes of pumpkin, sweet potatoes or jujubes can be added for extra sweetness.
Millet and sea cucumber soup is an extra nutritious, savory congee. The reconstituted sea cucumber can be briefly cooked in water with cooking wine to remove the fishy taste. It's then boiled in the millet congee, which is seasoned with salt and ginger.
Mung bean soup is a heat relief remedy. It's not necessarily a congee because of the texture, but is one of the most popular summertime dishes that provides the body with hydration and fiber.
The dry mung beans can be soaked in water for a few hours before boiling them to make the soup. When the beans pop open, the texture is ideal. Other summertime ingredients like Job's tears, lily bulb and lotus seeds can be added for additional flavor and benefits. It's usually served in its original flavor or with sugar to taste.
In Cantonese cuisine, mung bean soup is paired with the unorthodox kelp to boost its heat relief effect.
There is a special congee for celebrating the Laba Festival, the eighth day of the 12th lunar month – laba congee, a sweet, thick recipe that's similar to the eight treasures congee (babao congee). The latter uses eight different ingredients, including grains, dried fruit, and starchy root vegetables, while laba congee features more than a dozen ingredients.
The custom of Buddhism origin was introduced to folk lifestyle in the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Buddhist temples usually host special events during Laba Festival where monks hand out free laba congee to people – a way to celebrate the enlightenment of Buddha.
Typical ingredients found in laba congee include mixed cereals and grains – rice, black and glutinous rice, barley, Job's tears and red, mung and kidney beans – plus jujubes, peanuts, dried longan, walnuts, raisins, lotus seeds, lily bulb and rock sugar for layered flavor and texture.
The congee requires a longer simmering time so all the ingredients become very soft and blended together. It takes at least an hour to cook the congee in a regular electric cooker or over the stove, but the cooking time can be reduced with a pressure cooker.
The Chaoshan-style congee hotpot is a popular wintertime delicacy. The broth of the hotpot is a plain rice congee that's not too thick. Combine things like chicken, seafood, beef, meatballs and mushrooms, and cook them with a light soy sauce or shachajiang. The best part of the hotpot meal is a congee that has fully absorbed the delicious flavors from all the ingredients.
Congee, sweet or savory, is usually served with side dishes for added flavor and texture.
Plain rice congee and fermented tofu is a classic combo and one of the simplest meals. Dip the tip of your chopsticks to pick up a tiny bit of fermented tofu, which is creamy, salty and sometimes spicy, then enjoy a spoonful of the warm congee for the perfect balance of flavor.
Known as furu, fermented tofu is made of fresh tofu cubes that are arranged in 15 to 18 degrees Celsius wooden boxes, so the mold will grow and cover the pieces in about five days. A layer of salt is then spread between two layers of tofu cubes that are sealed to complete an eight-day fermentation process. The hardened tofu pieces are then soaked in a brine composed of rice wine (or sorghum liquor) along with spices.
Common types of fermented tofu include red, white and green varieties. The white furu is hailed as one of the "three treasures of Guilin," and highlights the original taste of fermented tofu – the perfect companion to rice congee.
Green fermented tofu, on the other hand, is a stinky variety much like the Chinese version of blue cheese, and is usually eaten as a spread on buns and pancakes.
Chinese pickles, or jiangcai, were once a means to preserve vegetables during periods of wintertime food scarcity. The vegetables, from radishes and lotus root to asparagus lettuce, are cured with lots of salt, then soaked and rinsed with water before undergoing another pickling process in soy sauce.
The jiangcai flavor profile in northern China is very salty, while the southern style leans toward the sweet side.
A couple classic jiangcai to serve with congee include pickled tender cucumber, which is sweet, crunchy and has a special fragrance from the fermented soy bean; and eight-treasure pickle, made of eight primary ingredients, including vegetables, nuts, sweet pickled garlic that cures the newly harvested, tender garlic in a brine of lots of sugar, some salt and a touch of vinegar.
Zhacai is a variety of vegetable pickle made from the root of the Chinese mustard plant. It's a savory pickle often served as a side dish, and adding a little bit of vinegar can greatly intensify the flavor.
Quick cold dishes like crunched cucumber salad and braised meats that have been prepared in advance are also great to serve with congee.