Congee as Comfort Food
The last few weeks have been exhausting. I’ve been sick twice in three weeks (once with a gastro-intestinal virus and am now recovering with maybe strep and/or a sinus infection), and my two illnesses bookended my little man’s bout with a stomach virus (yet again). Ever since Isaac started daycare in August, it’s been a neverending series of maladies at our house. So please forgive me for not posting until now.
Thankfully, I’m well-prepared when it comes to feeding the sick, whether my son, husband, or myself. My go-to dish is my mom’s congee, called ‘bubur’ in Indonesian, also known as jook (粥) or rice porridge. And it’s so easy to make, I can even fend for myself when I’m under the weather.
Just like chicken (noodle) soup is nature’s universal penicillin, congee is the Asian equivalent, a comforting bowl of goodness to nurse your ailing loved one back to health. Rice is left to simmer on the stove with water, chicken and aromatics until it is transformed into a velvety, smooth porridge that not only clears the sinuses but also nourishes the body.
There are countless ways to make congee, depending on what you have at home.
My mom likes to use broken jasmine rice, and yes, the grains are literally broken. She says that the congee cooks quicker and comes out silky smooth without as much effort. Experts will tell you the more frequently you stir the congee, the faster the rice grains will break down, making for a smoother porridge. Any rice you have at home—from sushi rice to brown rice (maybe not basmati because it is quite brittle but tell me if I’m wrong)—will work. You just might have to adjust the amount of water or cooking times.
I always have a stash of chicken bones in my freezer for making stock and for occasions such as these. If you like roasting chicken, save the carcass. When the time comes, dump it into a pot with all the necessary ingredients, and you’ll soon have a bubbling pot of congee big enough to feed the whole family … for days! Ditto with a turkey carcass. Turkey congee is a great morning-after-Thanksgiving breakfast especially if you have a contingent of guests to feed.
One of my favorite things about congee is the garnishes. I add a trickle of sesame oil, followed perhaps by some kecap manis (Indonesian sweey soy sauce), depending on my mood. Then I sprinkle my bowl with fried garlic, fried shallots (both these can be made at home or buy them at an Asian market), Tianjin preserved vegetables (basically salted cabbage), and green onions, after which I delight in mixing everything together. Even when I’m sick I don’t lose my affinity for flavor.
Personally, I don’t just reserve congee for when I’m sick. I can eat congee anytime: for breakfast, on a chilly winter’s day or whenever I miss my mom and her cooking. When I’m not sick, I tend to go crazy with the toppings. I’ll add barbecue pork, dried scallops, century egg (pei dan, 皮蛋), leftover roast chicken, pork floss, pickles, etc., etc. Sometimes, I’ll crack a raw egg into my steaming bowl of congee and stir continuously, allowing the inherent heat to cook the egg.
We all have favorite foods that make us feel better when we aren’t well. What food gives you comfort when you are sick?
Chicken Congee (Bubur Ayam)
If you don’t already have cooked rice in your fridge, use 1 1/2 cups of uncooked rice (I usually have jasmine rice at home). You’ll have to extend the cooking time to 1-1/2 to 2 hours but you’ll still be rewarded with a bowl of yummy goodness that is soothing both spiritually and physically. If I have some on hand, I also like to add small cubes of sweet potato toward the end of cooking to add sweetness and texture to the final dish.
Time: 1 hour or so
Makes: 4 servings
2 cups cooked white rice
5 cups water
1/2 pound chicken bones or 2 chicken thighs
3, 1/4-inch-thick slices fresh ginger
1 plump clove garlic, smashed
1 green onion, tied into a knot
1/4 of a whole yellow or red onion
Soy sauce, salt, and white pepper to taste
Sesame oil and/or kecap manis for drizzling (optional)
Shredded chicken meat (from the thighs above or leftovers)
Green onions, chopped
Tianjin preserved vegetables (tong chai)
In a medium pot, combine the rice, water, chicken bones, ginger, garlic, green onion, onion and bring to a boil over high heat. Skim off any scum or foam that rises to the surface.
Reduce heat to low and cover. Simmer for 1 hour, stirring occasionally so that the rice doesn’t stick to the bottom of pot and burn. If using chicken thighs, remove them after 20 minutes and scrape off the meat and shred or chop. Set the meat aside and return the bones to the pot. Continue cooking for another 40 minutes or so.
When the rice grains are swollen and the mixture is as thick as oatmeal, the congee is ready. If it gets too thick, add more water. If it’s too thin, cook it until it reaches the desired smoothness and thickness.
Remove the bones, ginger, garlic, green onion and onion. Add soy sauce, salt, and white pepper to taste.
Ladle into individual bowls, drizzle with sesame oil and/or kecap manis, and garnish as desired.
Here are more ideas for nourishing comfort foods:
Cambodian Herb-Scented Chicken Soup (S’ngao Chruok Moan)
Oma’s Chicken Soup
Lemongrass Steamed Fish