Cooking: Congee

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Much of my repertoire consists of comfort food.  Here I’m making Congee, or rice porridge.  The term “congee” is a Hong Kong English term, the chinese term is pronounced “Juk”, and is typically consumed as breakfast food across much of china.  This dish has variants throughout east asia and south east asia, but the basics are the same.  It’s a porridge made from rice. It varies in how thick or runny it can be, and there can be a wide range of additional toppings and ingredients that provide additional flavor (because, simple plain congee is really bland).

I’ve only made it once before, and it turned out so poorly, so I never bothered to try again.  But recently I read another food blog where they mentioned a trick that their family uses to shortcut the preparation.  I saw this as an opportunity to try again.

Ordinarily, regular rice would be cooked with a near one-to-one ratio of water-to-rice by volume, but congee is more watery, like four-to-one or six-to-one.   And it’s typically simmered for 1-2 hours, until the rice disintegrates and the starches are released to thicken the liquid.  The short cut method involves soaking the uncooked rice in room temperature water for an hour or so, and then freezing that rice overnight.  When the soaked rice freezes, it expands and cracks, so when it’s simmered the next day, it disintegrates quickly, reducing the cooking time.

I’m going show how to make a cantonese style congee, using this shortcut method. You’ll need

  • uncooked rice (about 2-3 tablespoons per serving)
  • chicken stock/broth (about 2 cups per serving)
  • dried scallop (one per serving)
  • light soy
  • white pepper
  • starch
  • oil (a neutral oil, like canola, corn oil, or peanut oil)
  • minced/ground pork (100g per serving)
  • dried shiitake mushroom, minced fine
  • peeled shrimp, minced fine (100g per serving)

This starts the night before.  Soak the rice and the dried scallop in water.  The scallop can go into the refrigerator immediately, but the rice should stay on the counter for at least an hour.  After an hour or so, drain the excess water from the rice, and put it in the freezer overnight.

If you are following my example (with the pork shrimp and mushroom meatballs), soak the dried shiitake mushroom in water, and leave it overnight.

Turn on the stove to medium heat, and add the soup stock/broth to a pot, with the frozen rice, and the dried (now reconstituted) scallop.  Once it comes to a boil, turn the heat down to medium-low.

While the porridge simmers (for about 30 minutes total), we prepare the extra optional ingredients from the ingredient list, highlighted in red). If you prefer, you can substitute with your preferred ingredients (see notes at the end of this recipe for suggestions)

Dice the mushroom finely, and add it to the pork.

Deshell the shrimp (and devein if necessary), mince the shrimp finely, and add it to the pork

Season the pork & shrimp mixture with soy, white pepper, and add a teaspoon of starch and a teaspoon of oil, mixing everything together thoroughly.

In the last 5-10 minutes, use a spoon to drop portions of the meatball mixture into the simmering congee (a heaping teaspoonful each).

Once the meatballs are cooked through (about 5-10 minutes depending on their size), remove the congee from the heat, and serve.

A common accompaniment to congee is youtiao.  These are leavened wheat flour dough balls deep fried in oil.  They are sometimes called chinese doughnuts, but they can be either light sweet or savory.  I prefer the savory variety.  They’re really to provide a lightly crunchy texture to contrast with the congee.

I bought mine at a chinese bakery.  It’s a lot of work (and a lot of mess) to make them from scratch, especially when it’s only one or two servings.

Notes:

  • I think the key to a good congee is the broth.  As mentioned before, plain congee is quite bland.  Simmering the rice in a broth or a soup stock adds much needed flavor.  I used a homemade chicken stock.  You can use a canned or prepared chicken broth if you don’t have homemade stock on hand, but I’d recommend a low-sodium variety.
  • One of the issues with making congee is, as it simmers and the rice breaks down, it thickens and the bloomed rice settles on the bottom of the pot.  The pot must be stirred periodically to prevent it from scorching on the bottom.  If you reduce the heat, this will reduce the likelihood of scorching, but the gentle simmer is insufficient to break apart the rice, so it remains lumpy.
  • I chose to add the pork & shrimp meatballs as my extra ingredient, but it can be just about anything.  Other common ingredients would be sliced fish, marinated chicken, barbequed duck, sliced fish cakes, pork floss, preserved duck egg, tofu sheets, etc.

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