Culture

A Comforting Rice Porridge With Many Faces, Many Names

What do you call it?

April 23, 2019
Photo by James Ransom

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.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“In addition to rice, there is one I've been meaning to try - it is called 'Kheech' and is a traditional farmers' breakfast in Rajasthan - made with boiling a handful of bajra (Pearl Millet), rice if available, with lots of water, seasoning it with a pinch of salt and a dollop of freshly made Ghee. Discovered it when I was writing one of my books. Sounds like a trap though, cause I may end up hating my other breakfasts ;)”
— Nandita G.
Comment

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.

It all starts with rice and water. Photo by James Ransom

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.

Do you have a congee story? Please share in the comments below.

25 Comments

Lindy April 26, 2019
Borbor here in Cambodia. Probably similar to the Indonesian version, topped with ginger, fried shallots etc. True comfort food and guaranteed hangover cure!
 
Author Comment
Pat T. April 29, 2019
How interesting that the names are so similar! Thanks for sharing your version :).
 
Sucheta M. April 25, 2019
The Bengali version is called ‘pantha bhaath’, water is added to left-over rice and it steeps and ferments slightly overnight. It is eaten with similar condiments as congee- fried onions, green chilies, pickle, crisp ‘papad’.
Khichuri is something else entirely.
 
Panfusine April 25, 2019
that soaked up overnight rice was usually strained and had buttermilk added to it with a pinch of salt in South Indian households, - 'Pazhan choru' paired with tiny fresh peeled sambar shallots and a green chili!. you raked up such wonderful memories of food from generations ago! Thank you!
 
Author Comment
Pat T. April 29, 2019
Fascinating that you leave it to ferment overnight. Does it impart a sour taste? Is papad like papadum?
 
Eric K. April 29, 2019
^Same question.
 
Denise April 25, 2019
Chinese in Hawaii have made jook since they arrived in the 19th century. Many make it after Thanksgiving with the turkey carcass. Usually chung Choi, a salted preserved cabbage, is added for flavor. I’ve also seen ground pork and dried shiitake mushrooms added. Garnishes are always green onion and cilantro. It’s still served in Chinese restaurants here. My dad who’s 91 gets a fish version once a week from a nearby Chinese place.
 
Eric K. April 25, 2019
I love that, Denise. Thanks for sharing your story.
 
Author Comment
Pat T. April 29, 2019
I love making congee using the post-Thanksgiving turkey carcass. Does your dad love his fish congee with lots of ginger? Love hearing your story, thanks!
 
Nandita G. April 24, 2019
Thanks for including my notes, Pat!

There are indeed many ways to make Congee in India. In addition to rice, there is one I've been meaning to try - it is called 'Kheech' and is a traditional farmers' breakfast in Rajasthan - made with boiling a handful of bajra (Pearl Millet), rice if available, with lots of water, seasoning it with a pinch of salt and a dollop of freshly made Ghee. Discovered it when I was writing one of my books. Sounds like a trap though, cause I may end up hating my other breakfasts ;)
 
Eric K. April 25, 2019
Thank you!
 
Author Comment
Pat T. April 29, 2019
Thank YOU, Nandita!
 
Claudia T. April 24, 2019
My mom is Lao, so in our house it was called khao piek (it seems khao piak is the more common spelling). We also spoke Thai and it took me some time to work out if khao thom was different than khao piak. She would make it with chicken thighs chopped with a giant cleaver (bone still in!) And cilantro, which I loved, and spare me the spring onions, which I hated. And always ground white pepper. I also loved pork floss in my rice soup. She stirred the pot a lot so the rice got broken up, and it was thick. But if we were sick it was less chicken, clearer broth, not as much stirring so the grains were more intact. Less salty, with ginger and lemongrass. Now I like to try different things in my rice soup, especially a soft boiled egg, but my husband (who didnt grow up with this) likes his pretty plain.
My cousins and I were just talking about how none of us really like oatmeal, but we like grits, so maybe its closer to khao piak in our minds?
I recently went on a cruise for the first time, and while I was actually very impressed by the variety of food, I found myself wanting khao piak for breakfast. I had it often for breakfast and I think most,of the traveling in my life had been in Asian countries, so I expected congee as my "continental breakfast" since it is usually part of the breakfast buffet in the hotels there. I chatted with one of the crew who was Thai, who told me there's many Thai, Pinoy, and Indonesian crew, so they make khao thom- but for the crew! Not the guests! But she'd get me some if I really wanted it. It was really sweet of her.
 
Author Comment
Pat T. April 29, 2019
Did you end up getting some? Isn't it funny how we always tend to crave our childhood comfort foods. Love it!
 
weshook April 24, 2019
Mmm...jook.
 
HalfPint April 23, 2019
Chao was my mother's "chicken soup" for when we were feeling poorly. And it was a food for the poor. You could feed a large family easily with a little bit of rice. My favorite variation was with fish and fish cakes. So warm and satisfying.
 
Author Comment
Pat T. April 29, 2019
Yes, so true! It's a great way to stretch rice and feed more people.
 
Yohanna B. May 5, 2019
I remember one of my grade-school teachers (in Indonesia) shared a story of his own upbringing during the war and struggle years in the country. His mother would cook bubur with a lot of water because there's just not enough rice to go around. He had joked that it made him feel full but after he went to the bathroom he would be hungry again.

I love your piece, Pat. Growing up as Chinese-Indonesian, I was accustomed to two different kinds of bubur: one was Javanese style, thick with lots of toppings and kecap manis and the other was Chinese style, which was thin and more subtle in flavors. I much prefer the Javanese style but maybe it's because I don't get to eat them very often. :)
 
Author Comment
Pat T. May 6, 2019
Thank you for sharing, Yohanna! I always love hearing from other Indonesians living in the US and their experiences. Do you make bubur at home? Please keep in touch!
 
Panfusine April 23, 2019
Ultimate comfort food when down with a temperature or cold. The South Indian style was to cook up 'Kurunai arisi' (Broken rice) with water, and then finish with
a tadka tempering of ghee and cumin seeds (perhaps a pinch of asafetida for that extra umami) - paired with salt cured sun dried pieces of pickled citron .
 
Eric K. April 23, 2019
That sounds amazing, too. Thanks for sharing as always!
 
Author Comment
Pat T. April 29, 2019
Ooooh, that pickled citron sounds like a wonderful finish. Do you make your own?
 
Jamie C. April 23, 2019
Jook remains to be the go-to illness meal in our home. We use pork bone and ginger root but if we were making it as an ordinary meal, we'd add century eggs. It was also our childhood safety-net dish at dim sum back when we too picky to eat anything else.
 
Eric K. April 23, 2019
Dang, that sounds good.
 
Author Comment
Pat T. April 29, 2019
I make congee with pork bones too. Can't waste those bones...