congee – is chinese rice porridge. to me, it is the quintessential chinese comfort food. when i was a child, whenever i had a cold or an upset stomach, the cook would make congee and while the rest of the family would eat the regular meal of meats, fish and veggies, i or whoever was sick in the family would eat congee because it is highly digestible and therefore would not be taxing on one’s digestive system. if chicken matzoh ball soup is the jewish penicillin, then rice congee is the chinese tetracycline. of course, one does not have to have a cold to eat congee. it is a common breakfast in asia, and is eaten for lunch ,dinner as well as a snack at any time. in cantonese, it’s called “jook”.
what is congee ? the basic rice congee is made with white rice with a lot of water added, and slowly simmered for a couple of hours til the rice kernels pop open and the amylose starches in the rice turn it into a thick porridge. this cantonese dish is usually cooked with various ingredients to give the congee flavor and nutrition. chicken, pork, fish, century eggs, ginger , anything really can be thrown into the pot to flavor it. in traditional chinese medicine food therapy, congee harmonizes the chi and the longer the congee cooks, the more powerful its’ tonifying property. one of my personal favorites is congee with abalone and chicken. a bowl of hot velvety congee is delicious , filling and soothing at the same time due to its thick soupy texture. congee can be made in a rice cooker, a crock pot or a regular soup pot. some rice cookers even have a congee setting. since most chinese families own an electric rice cooker that’s the usual method of cooking congee at home. however, since there are restaurants in chinatown that specialize in making congee, there’s really no reason to make it yourself unless you like to cook. and clean up.
congee restaurants - there are certain dishes that are best left to the experts, or require some quality of time , labor or mess that makes it inconvenient to make at home. for example, i love fish and chips, but it’s much easier to just buy it at a restaurant that specializes in it like a salt & battery rather than have a big pot of hot oil on my stove just to fry up a couple of pieces of fish myself. i feel the same way about congee, especially since any congee restaurant will offer dozens of tasty congees and it’s instant gratification.
my current favorite is congee village at 100 allen street on the lower east side. they have festooned the exterior with so many multicolored light bulbs that i suspect that it’s visible from space. congee village is a busy and funky joint decorated with big bamboo railings to give it that mainland china villagey vibe but i doubt any real village in china looks like this , so it’s just campy and kitschy but festively fun instead. they offer 29 flavors of congee containing beef, fish, chicken and more “ethnic” ingredients like snail, frog meat and fish maw. each order comes in a traditional chinese clay pot with a round handle, and it arrives scorchingly hot with plumes of steam rising invitingly. any flavor of congee costs from $3.50 to $4.75 with a few exceptions. congee village also has a full menu of regular chinese dishes . the service is the typical chinatown restaurant waiter mix of blase efficiency and disinterest, but at these prices who cares. the next time i come here, i’m going to get no.427 the lobster porridge. they now have a second branch at 207 bowery named congee bowery. again they went for a distinctive decor, this time a tad more tasteful with a small waterfall sloshing into a narrow koi pond. set into the floor is a second koi pond with a round see-through lexan top . i tried their noodles here which were terrible. *note to self – go to the other branch.
an old fave congee restaurant is big wong at 67 mott street which has excellent bbq roast pork and fresh fried devils so i always get their roast pork congee cause it’s a really good flavor. i’ve also gotten a plain congee and half a pound of their bbq roast pork and then eaten them together so as to have even more of that roast pork savoriness in my congee. two goodies combined means double the goodness. this is foodie math ! big wong has 13 congees on their menu but they are known for their chinese bbq meats like soy sauce chicken and roast duck. the newcomer congee restaurant is the aptly named congee restaurant at 98 bowery in chinatown which has 25 kinds of congee. more congee restaurants in new york is a good trend.
accompaniments - the classic side dish eaten with congee is the chinese fried cruller known in cantonese as “fried devil”. these are foot long yeasty strips of risen dough that are fried in a humongous wok filled with hot oil…… hmmm ..perhaps the chinese were the early inventors of the modern day doughnut ……… ( d’oh ! just had a homer simpson moment ) . if you order a plain congee , restaurants will usually put a few sliced chunks of cruller on top. the contrast between taking a bite into the crisp and airy cruller, then the hot soupy rice makes for a most satisfying textural sensation. there are other fried doughy things like the oval blimpy one known in cantonese as the “cow tongue” cause it’s shaped like its’ name, this is a little denser and slightly sweet. very yummy too. congee is usually served with a sprinkle of green scallions and slivered ginger. a common at-home topping is a dried shredded pork called “pork sung”, it looks like brown dried cotton candy and it’s very tasty if you like pork. you could actually just add this pork sung to plain rice congee and it would taste great, but even better on flavored congee.
any dish you like goes well with a big bowl of hot congee. salt & pepper squid is really delicious, scallion pancake, peking duck, beef & broccoli or a dish of chinese greens , roast pork . it’s all good, but if you go to a congee restaurant you will want to try different congees. i have yet to sample all the flavors cause i tend to have my favorites and stick with them, so it’s ideal to go with friends and sample each others. congee is a simple dish but it is one of the most soothing foods there is. i have non-chinese friends who’ve never tried congee til i took them to try it , and once you’ve eaten it and loved it, it’s no longer exotic but a comforting thing in your mind. one of the many courses in the chef’s tasting menu at morimoto is a small dish of plain white congee topped with a piece of slow cooked pork. i think that congee should not be turned into a precious tiny dish on a japanese tasting menu but left as an egalitarian bountiful big clay pot of chinese deliciousness.
copyright 2009 Jo Jo Kwong. all rights reserved.
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