Chicken noodle soup—aka "Jewish penicillin"—may be many Americans’ go-to when it comes to healing the body and soul. But when I’m down and out, nothing beats a big, steaming bowl of my mother’s velvety bubur ayam, an Indonesian rice porridge with chicken.
As a little girl, I’d feign illness just so Mum would make her special concoction: chicken bones, water, and a mix of jasmine and broken rices simmered and stirred on the stove for hours. Mum’s rice porridge was also given an edge with chicken bouillon (and what was probably MSG). Sometimes, she'd break a raw egg into the hot bowl and let the residual heat cook it into feathery strands. But bubur was always topped with preserved winter vegetables (dongcai), fried shallots, green onions, and maybe a drizzle of kecap manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce).
Can you blame little-girl-me for wanting to eat bubur for breakfast, lunch, and dinner?
In fact, all across Asia and the diaspora, congee is prepared in myriad ways and eaten at all times of the day—all versions tasty, all versions comforting.
This fact isn’t surprising, considering rice is a staple food in many Asian cultures and communities. Sometimes sweet, mostly savory, congee can be made with day-old rice—just one more way to reduce waste and use up leftovers. For countries with long histories of famine, natural disasters, and war, this staple meal has always been a frugal way to stretch meager portions of rice and feed a crowd.
Congee, or jook, probably originated in China. Cookbook author Eileen Yin-Fei Lo maintains that congee dates back to approximately 1000 B.C., during the Zhou dynasty. In the south, jook was (and is still) made with rice, the preferred grain. Thick gruels made with wheat, barley, sorghum, millet, tapioca, and even corn were more common in northern China where these grains grew abundantly.
Strangely enough, the word that has universally become the moniker of choice derives from the Tamil kanji. It refers to both the porridge and the water in which the rice has been cooked.
Today, names for congee are as varied as the style of preparation. Regardless of what it’s called, the dish is easy to prepare and satisfying all year-round. There is no limit to congee’s permutations. Depending on whom you ask, it might contain chicken, fish, eggs, vegetables, herbs, spices, grains, condiments, and/or all of the above.
Similar to plain steamed rice, congee acts as the blank canvas for a selection of side dishes. The Japanese have okayu, usually paired with umeboshi (pickled plum), salmon, and nori. In Taiwan, congee studded with sweet potato is relished with other dishes in lieu of rice.
When suffused with meat and spices, congee is a one-pot meal suitable for consumption anytime. Arroz caldo, the Filipino variation of congee, is common as a midday merienda (light meal). When boiled eggs or seafood join the party, arroz caldo makes for a substantial meal on its own.
Thai khao tom is a soupy congee: one-third rice and two-thirds water, says cooking instructor Pranee Khruasanit Halvorsen. She taught me how to make khao tom with ground pork, spinach, shrimp, and loads of garlic and ginger.
In the Indian food tradition, kanji is typically made with rice. But Nandita Godbole, author of Roti: 40 Classic Indian Breads and Sides says it can be made with other grains, as well. “There are several dishes like (kanji) found across regions of India that have a similar concept—locally available grain cooked down with lots of water, prepared with a pinch of salt and minimal other seasonings.” A Bengali version, khichuri, might be made with both rice and lentils, or sometimes mung beans, brightened with spices like turmeric and ginger and finished with mustard seed oil.
Juk refers to any Korean porridge made with rice and/or other grains or legumes, such as barley, beans, sesame seeds, and nuts. One variation, hobakjuk, even stars pumpkin, with sweet rice flour in place of the usual rice.
My friend Joseph No remembers his mom making dakjuk (chicken rice porridge) when he was little. First she'd simmer a whole chicken—giblets, offal, et al.—on the stove. Aromatics would follow, including onions, garlic, spring onions, and sometimes ginseng when he was feeling under the weather. Short-grain rice went in last. The end product was a “thick, viscous, savory soup” that was served with black pepper, sesame oil, pulled chicken tossed in a “mysterious” marinade (Joe’s words!), and chopped spring onions on the side. Joe’s father enjoyed his dakjuk with a spicy chili paste for heat.
"Oh yeah, I know dakjuk," Eric Kim says. "My mom would make that whenever we were sick. There were always little chicken bone pieces in it—I hated that! But that's why it tasted so good; the broth came from a slow-cooked whole chicken that just absolutely fell apart."
Though we may come from different culinary traditions, each varied and elaborate in their own ways, there is some convergence in this simple rice dish. Each culture's congee is a variant of one idea: comfort.
So whether you grew up on Vietnamese cháo or Burmese hsan pyoke, we're all bonded through rice and water.