If you visit New York City at daytime, or the French Quarter of New Orleans at night, you will see plenty of hot dog stands. Customers will be buying a hot dog with sauerkraut in New York, or one with chili in New Orleans. But, far away in China’s cities there are popular congee stands everywhere you look. What is Congee, and why is it so popular?
More than just a rice soup, congee is important to daily life in China. Called “jook” by the locals, it serves as a fast food that is inexpensive, comforting, and quite diverse. The jook stand has a big cauldron of very soupy rice and several garnishments. Instead of sauerkraut, onions or chili; the jook dish can have roast pork, beef, lamb, chicken, seafood and various vegetables added to it, especially leafy vegetables, rich in anti-oxidants. One can visit a jook stand every day for several days and enjoy a different jook each time.
In China as well as in many Chinese-American households, congee is often enjoyed for breakfast. Although it probably started as a rice extender, congee is universally loved for its comforting taste, and goes well with fried eggs, smoked fish, ham, sauted vegetables and the like. On a blustery day, a bowl of congee is as welcome as a cup of coffee, perhaps more so.
Making your own congee is very easy, but you will need a little more time and liquid than you normally would for making plain boiled rice. What makes the congee so special is the slightly glutinous texture achieved by simmering the rice slowly for a longer length of time. The rice becomes deliciously creamy soft and the solids are well incorporated, leaving a complex, delicate flavor.
Congee is best made in a heavy-bottomed pot, big enough to hold a gallon of liquid. If you were to serve between six and eight people, you would use one cup of rice and three quarts of stock and simmer for a couple of hours. Modern cooks have streamlined this process though, and usually cook it covered for about thirty minutes, using only two quarts of stock.
Start with raw rice. Then heat some oil in the pot and saut some chopped onion till it becomes golden. At this point add some cubed daikon, or potato, and a little thyme or rosemary if you like. Next add cubed beef, roast pork, lamb or chicken. Some people add a little wine, or brandy. Then add the appropriate stock and stir. Cook over high heat till boiling and simmer slowly. If you were using seafood or leafy vegetables, add them almost at the end.
Congee is a deceptively simple, delicious dish that you can enjoy at breakfast or dinner. All who try it praise it. Why don’t you try it yourself? You just might become a congee addict. Fortunately, there is no cure.