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Congee

Congee or conjee is a type of rice porridge or gruel popular in many Asian countries. When eaten as plain rice congee, it is most often served with side dishes. When additional ingredients, such as meat, fish, and flavourings, are added whilst preparing the congee, it is most often served as a meal on its own, especially when one is ill. Names for congee are as varied as the style of its preparation. Despite its many variations, it is always a thick porridge or soup of rice which has usually disintegrated after prolonged cooking in copious water.

Congee

A bowl of Congee

Preparation

To prepare the dish, rice is boiled in a large amount of water until it softens significantly. Congee can be made in a pot or in a rice cooker. Some rice cookers have a “congee” setting, allowing it to be cooked overnight. The type of rice used can be either short or long grain, depending on what is available and regional cultural influences. Culture also often dictates the way congee is cooked and eaten.

In some cultures, congee is eaten primarily as a breakfast food or late supper; in others, it is eaten as a substitute for rice at other meals. It is often considered particularly suitable for the sick as a mild, easily digestible food.

Bangladesh

In Bangladesh, congee, known as konji jaou or kanji jaou along with panta bhat, is popular throughout the whole country, more so in rural areas than urban. It is made by repeatedly boiling rice in large quantities of water. The result is a thick, white broth. Its consistency and colour are dictated by the water-to-rice ratio (which can be from 5:1 to 13:1)  and the various types of rice used. Glutinous rice is often used in Sylhet and Khulna, which makes the broth quite distinct from other types in the country. In some parts of the country, it is smoked while cooking, giving it a unique aroma. It is usually served for breakfast with lime, salt, chilli and fried shallot. On its own, it is fed to the unwell as it is believed to be beneficial to the digestive system.

Burma

In Burma, rice congee is called hsan byok, literally “boiled rice”. It is very thin and plain, often made with just rice and water, but sometimes with chicken or pork stock and served with a simple garnish of chopped spring onions and crispy fried onions. As in other Asian countries, rice congee is considered food for the unwell.

China

Chinese congee (Chinese language: 粥)  vary considerably by region. For example, to make Cantonese congee, white rice is boiled in many times its weight of water for a long time until the rice breaks down and becomes a fairly thick, white porridge (Pinyin: báizho-u). Congees made in other regions may use different types of rice with different quantities of water, producing congees of different consistencies.

Congee is often eaten with zhacai, salted duck eggs, lettuce and dace (Cirrhinus chinensis – Chinese mud carp) paste, bamboo shoots, rousong, pickled tofu, wheat gluten, with other condiments, meat or century eggs.

Other seasonings, such as white pepper and soy sauce, may be added. Grilled fish may be mixed in to provide a different texture.

Congee is often eaten with fried bread sticks known as You Tiao. Congee with youtiao is commonly eaten as breakfast in many areas in China. Congee can be left watery, or can be drained so it has a texture similar to Western oatmeal porridge. Congee can also be made from brown rice, although this is less common and takes longer to cook.

Besides being an everyday meal, congee is considered to be food therapy for the unwell. Ingredients can be determined by their supposed therapeutic value as well as flavour.

The origin of congee is unknown, but from many historical accounts, it was usually served during times of famine, or when numerous patrons visited the temples, as a way to stretch the rice supply to feed more people.

In China, congee has also been used to feed young infants. However, the cooking time is much longer than for okayu and, because it is for infants, the congee is not seasoned with salt or any other flavouring. Often it is mixed with steamed and deboned fish.

Congee made from other grains, such as cornmeal, millet, barley, and sorghum, are common in the north of China where rice does not grow as well as other grains suited for a colder climate. Multigrain congee mixes are sold in the health food sections of Chinese supermarkets. Congee with mung beans is usually eaten with sugar, like red bean congee.

India

In Tamil Nadu, a plain rice porridge, or the thick supernatant water from overcooked rice, is known as kanji. Kanji or Congee is also prepared with different grains available in different parts of Tamil Nadu, for example minor millet or pearl millet, finger millet, broken wheat, maize. The people of Kerala also call this preparation of rice in a watery state kanji, and it is eaten as a porridge with green lentils or chutney. Kanji is prepared with rice or ragi. Nuts and spices are added to the kanji depending on the economic status or health requirements. Rice kanji is prepared by boiling rice in large amounts of water. To this preparation, either milk and sugar (usually jaggery) or curd (yoghurt) and salt are added. Ragi kanji is prepared by drying ragi sprouts in shade, and then grinding them into a smooth powder. This powder is added to water and cooked. Milk and brown sugar are added to this cooked preparation for taste. Ragi kanji can be given to infants after six months. Another kanji preparation uses jevvarisi  (sago in English, sabudana in Hindi) in kanji. Sago is dry roasted and powdered with/ without sugar. Powdered sago is boiled in water until cooked. This is eaten by all ages from adults to infants as young as three months.

In the state of Kerala, during the Malayalam month of Karkkidakam, a medicinal kanji is made using Ayurvedic herbs, milk and jaggery. Karkkidakam is known as the month of diseases since the monsoon starts during Karkkidakam. Karikkidaka Kanji is eaten to promote the immune system.

According to the Indian writer Madhur Jaffrey, kanji is, or is derived from, a Tamil word for “boilings”, referring to the porridge and also to any water in which rice has been cooked.

In the Goa, Udupi and Mangalore districts, people usually eat rice ganji in a variant manner made by Kannada-speaking, Tulu-speaking or Konkani people in and around Udupi and Mangalore (Karnataka, South India). There, parboiled rice is steamed with a large amount of water. Jain ganji matt are famous in these districts. Usually, simple ganji with pickle and milk are served, in jain matts. Fresh coconut is grated, and the resulting milk skimmed and added to the ganji  (called pej in Konkani), which is served hot with fish curry,  coconut chutney, or Indian pickles. In Goa, it is normally served with dried or fresh cooked fish, papad or vegetables.

In the state of Andhra Pradesh, it is called ganji in Telugu and mostly eaten by the very poor.

Pakhal bhat is an authentic and traditional Oriya dish. People in Orissa like it because of its unique taste. It is a soup-based dish like dal, but tastes a little sour. This is a very healthy dish as lots of vegetables and curd are used as main ingredients.

Indonesia

In Indonesia, congee, called bubur, is a favourite breakfast food, and many food vendors pass through the streets at dawn, calling “bubur” to sell it to householders. A popular version is bubur ayam, which is congee with shredded chicken meat. It is also served with many condiments, such as spring onion, crispy fried shallot, fried soybean, Chinese crullers (Youtiao, known as cakwe in Indonesia), both salty and sweet soy sauce, and sometimes it is topped with yellow chicken broth and kerupuk (Indonesian style crackers). Unlike many other Indonesian dishes, it is not spicy; sambal or chilli paste is served separately.

The food hawkers sometimes have sate to go with it, made from quail egg or chicken intestine, liver, gizzard, or heart.

On Bali’s north coast, famously in the village called Bondalem, there is a local congee dish called mengguh, a popular local chicken and vegetable rice congee that is spicier than common bubur ayam and more similar to tinutuan, using a spice mix of onions, garlic, coriander seeds, pepper, and chilli.

In another region of Indonesia, Manado, very popular is tinutuan, or bubur Manado (Manadonese porridge), another porridge with ample vegetables. A bit different from the one sold on Java Island, it is made from rice porridge and enhanced with water spinach or kangkung, corn kernels, yam or sweet potato, dried salty fish, lemon basil or kemangi leaves, and melinjo or Gnetum gnemon leaves.

Sago flour is made into porridge in eastern Indonesian, as the staple food of Maluku and Papuan people. The sago congee is called papeda, and usually is eaten with yellow soup made from tuna or mubara fish spiced with turmeric and lime.

Japan

Okayu  (お粥)  is the name for the type of congee eaten in Japan, which is considerably thicker than congee produced in other cultures. For example, a Cantonese-style congee typically uses a water-to-rice ratio of 12:1, but okayu typically uses ratios of  5:1  (zen-gayu) or 7:1  (shichibu-gayu). Also, its cooking time is shorter than other types of congee: okayu is cooked for about 30 minutes, while Cantonese congees cook for an hour or more.

Okayu may be made with just rice and water, and is often seasoned with salt. Eggs could be beaten into it to thicken it into gruel. Toppings may be added to enhance flavour; negi  (a type of green onion), salmon, roe, ginger, and umeboshi  (pickled ume fruit)  are among the most common. Miso or chicken stock may be used to flavour the broth. Most Japanese electric rice cookers have a setting for okayu.

In Japan, okayu is popularly known as a food served to the ill. Because it is soft and easily digestible, okayu is commonly the first solid food served to Japanese infants; it is used to help with the transition from liquids to normally cooked “plain” rice, gohan  (ご飯) , as it is a major part of the Japanese diet. It is also commonly eaten by the elderly for the same reasons.

A type of okayu called nanakusa-gayu  (七草粥, “seven herb porridge”)  is traditionally eaten on 7 January with special herbs that some believe protect against evils and invite good luck and longevity in the new year. As a simple, light dish, nanakusa-gayu serves as a break from the many heavy dishes eaten over the Japanese New Year.

Zo-sui  (雑炊)  is a similar dish, which uses already cooked rice, rather than cooking the rice in the soup.

Korea

In Korea, the dish goes by the name Juk derived from the Chinese language in which juk or jook means the same thing. More than 40 varieties of juk are mentioned in old documents. Depending on the ingredients and consistency, juk can be considered as a food for recuperation (much like chicken soup in modern culture), a delicacy, or food during famine and war.

The most general form of juk is simply called heen juk (흰죽, white juk), which is made from plain white rice. Other varieties include different ingredients, such as milk, vegetables, seafood, nuts and other grains. Being largely unflavoured, it is served with a number of more flavourful side dishes, such as jeotgal, various types of kimchi, pickled cuttlefish, spicy octopus, and others.

Notable varieties include jatjuk made from finely ground pine nuts, jeonbok juk made with abalones, yulmujuk made from Job’s tears, and patjuk made from red beans.

Juk is considered the ideal choice of food for babies, the ill or elderly, as it is easily eaten and digested. It is sold commercially by many chain stores in South Korea, and is a common takeout dish.

Laos

In Laos, congee is called khào piak: literally “rice wet”. It is usually eaten for breakfast or during cold weather. Lao congee is cooked with rice and chicken broth or water. It is prepared similarly to Thai congee, and various spices, herbs, seasonings and sometimes eggs are added.

Philippines

Lugaw is the Tagalog name for congee. Otherwise similar to Cantonese-style congee, lúgaw is typically thicker, retaining the shape of the rice, but with a similar texture. It is boiled with strips of fresh ginger. Other flavours may be added according to taste. Most often it is topped with spring onions and served with crispy fried garlic. As with Japanese okayu, fish or chicken stock may be used to flavour the broth. Lúgaw can also be served with tokwa’t baboy (diced tofu and pork), goto (beef tripe), utak (brain [of pig]), dílà (tongue [of pig]), lítid ([beef] ligaments), and with kalamansi, patís, and soy sauce. It is often served to the ill and the elderly, and is favoured among Filipinos living abroad in colder climates because it is warm, soft, and easily digestible.

Some provinces prefer the Spanish-influenced arroz caldo (an anglicisation of caldode arroz, literally “rice soup”), which is often thought to be a European dish because of its name. Arroz caldo is actually a Chinese congee that was adapted to the tastes of the Spanish colonial settlers who patronised Chinese restaurants in the Philippines.

Arroz caldo is usually spiced with safflower and black pepper in place of or in addition to the more traditional ginger and scallion. Arroz caldo is more popular among people of Ilokano heritage, although those of other provinces, such as Cebu, often eat it with the addition of prawns, olive oil, bay leaf, and Chinese sausage.

Portugal

In Portugal, a traditional soup made of rice and chicken meat is named canja. The rice is not cooked for as long as in Asian congee, so it is very soft, but not disintegrated. Traditionally, a boiling fowl containing small, immature eggs is used; the eggs are carefully boiled and served in the canja. This soup is sometimes served with a fresh mint leaf on top. Strongly valued as comfort food, it is traditionally given to people recovering from disease, as in Asia, and in some regions of Portugal, there is even an ancient custom of feeding the mother a strict diet of canja in the first weeks after childbirth. It is also eaten traditionally in Brazil and Cape Verde, former Portuguese colonies.

Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, several types of congee is known as Kenda in Sinhalese. Sinhala people use congee as a breakfast, a side dish, an accessory to indigenous medical therapies, a sweet, etc. The word Kenda gets changed with the purpose, ingredients, etc. Especially Sinhala people prepare various types of Kenda with many ingredients, such as rice, roasted rice, rice flour, finger millet flour, sago, coconut milk, herbs, tubers, Kitul flour, mung bean, etc. When it is prepared with rice and water only, it is known as Hal Kenda ; if salt is added to bring a much saltier taste, it is known as Lunu Kenda.  Lunu Kenda is commonly used as a supplementary diet in purgation therapy in indigenous medical traditions. If roasted rice is used in Kenda preparation, such congee becomes Bendi Hal Kenda utilised to treat diarrheal diseases. If rice flour and coconut milk are the main ingredients, such congee is known as Kiriya.  If finger millet flour and water is used, it is known as Kurakkan Anama.  Moreover, if coconut milk is added to it, then it is Kurakkan Kenda.  If sago used, such congee is known as Sawu Kenda. A special type of congee prepared from the by-product of coconut oil produce, is known as Pol Kiri Kenda.

If herbs used as an ingredient, such congee is known as Kola Kenda.  There are many varieties of Kola Kenda depending on the herb used. Sometimes, a Vaidya or Veda Mahttaya (a physician trained in indigenous medical traditions) might prescribe an special type of Kola Kenda, in this situation it is known as Behet Kenda. The Sinhala villagers use specific tubers for preparing congee, such as Diascorea species tubers. If Kitul flour is mixed with boiling water and coconut milk added to it, this special type of congee is known as Kitul Piti Kenda. Sometimes kenda is prepared with mung bean and it is known as Mung Eta Kenda.

Most of the time, Kiriya, Kurakkan Kenda, Sawu Kenda, Pol Kiri Kenda and Kitul Piti Kenda are used as sweets. Sugar, candy, dates, raisins, cashew nut, jaggery, treacle, etc. are added to sweeten these congees.

Kola Kenda plays an important role in the lives of the village people and with the raised awareness of health benefits of Kola Kenda, increasing number of upper-class people tend to consume Kola Kenda.

It is also eaten by Sri Lankan Muslims for iftar during Ramadan. It is also occasionally made with oats. Tamils and Muslims in Sri Lanka call it aarisi kanji (rice kanji) and use chicken or beef for it. It is sometimes made with milk (paal kanji), and there are many other combinations with appropriate prefixes in Tamil.

Taiwan

In Taiwan, congee is prepared in the same way as in Fujian Province, China, and consists of rice and water, with few other ingredients. Sweet potato is often added for taste, and eggs are sometimes beaten into it to thicken it to a gruel. As with most Chinese styles, congee is often served to the ill and those with difficulty chewing. A variety of side dishes are often served with congee, as well.

Thailand

In Thai cuisine, rice congee, known as chok, is often served as breakfast with a raw or partially cooked egg added. Minced pork or beef and chopped spring onions are usually added, and the dish is optionally topped with a small version of youtiao (called pathongko in Thai), fried garlic, slivered ginger, and spicy pickles such as pickled radish. Although it is more popular as a breakfast dish, many stores specializing in congee sell it throughout the day. Variations in the meat and toppings are also frequently found. It is especially popular during Thailand’s cool season.

Plain rice congee, known as khao tom kui, is often eaten at specialised restaurants which serve a multitude of side dishes to go with it, such as yam kun chiang  (a Thai salad made with sliced dried Chinese sausages), mu phalo (pork stewed in soy sauce and five-spice powder), and mu nam liap (minced pork fried with chopped Chinese olives).

Vietnam

In Vietnam, rice congee, called cháo, is sometimes cooked with pandan leaves or Asian green beans. In its simplest form (plain rice porridge), it is a food for times of famine and hardship, when rice is not abundant. Or, as is especially common among Buddhist monks, nuns and lay people, it can be a simple breakfast food eaten with pickled vegetables or fermented tofu. Despite its humble ubiquity among the poor, it is also popular as a main entrée when cooked with a variety of meats. For example, cháo gà is cooked with chicken, garlic, and ginger. The rice porridge is cooked in the broth in which a whole chicken had been boiled, and once the chicken is cooked, the meat is sliced and layered on a bed of shredded, uncooked cabbage, sliced onions, and drizzled with a vinegar-based sauce, to be eaten as a side dish to the porridge. Other combinations include cháo vịt  (duck porridge), which is cooked in the same fashion as the chicken porridge, but with duck. Cháo lòng heo is made with lòng heo (a variety of offal from pork or duck with sliced portions of congealed pork blood). It is also common to eat cháo during an illness, as it is believed the porridge is easy to digest while being fortifying. For such purposes, the cháo is sometimes cooked with roasted white rice, giving the porridge broth a more nuanced body and a subtle, nutty flavour. In some parts of Vietnam, local customs call for making cháo for death anniversary ceremonies, during which it is offered to fortify the spirits of the dead. (This tradition, however, is not widely practiced and seems to contradict the general principle of providing only the best food for one’s ancestors.) 

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