To say I’m disappointed would be an understatement. Given everything I had read and heard about congee, I half-expected my souped-up version to be the culinary equivalent of a wide-spectrum antibiotic. Or at least Airborne. I mean, read what Tobie Meyer-Fong, associate professor in the history department at Johns Hopkins University, wrote to me recently:
“Congee is usually the first non-milk food given to babies,” noted Meyer-Fong, a research expert on late imperial China and a budding expert on Chinese cuisine. “It is also something eaten by the elderly (particularly in cases of dental trouble). It is comfort food, eaten when one is feeling under the weather, particularly with stomach trouble. In some contexts, it has a reputation as suitable for eating when one has a hangover.”
Or read what Timothy Yu, the youngest son of Hollywood East Cafe owner Janet Yu, told me: “Whenever you’re sick, you know how everyone eats chicken soup? I would eat congee.”
Clearly, I had more to learn about the porridge, and the first lesson was this: Congee is not some East Asian panacea.
Timothy Yu is an American by birth — a Wheaton kid all the way — but the 19-year-old was nonetheless raised on congee. The rice porridge’s pull apparently is strong even among a generation of Chinese Americans who have grown up in a Western culture that daily promises something new to provide comfort or rejuvenation. It might be a pill, an app, an energy drink, a fortified foodstuff, a friend request on Facebook. For millions of people, whether in China or Washington’s Chinatown, those ephemera can’t compare to the simple, unadorned comforts of congee.
Tradition, of course, plays a large role in congee’s appeal, as if the porridge has been hard-wired into the DNA of the people who have been consuming it for centuries. The earliest reference to congee that Meyer-Fong found dates it to the Han dynasty, circa 206 B.C. to A.D. 220, but Yin-Fei Lo maintains that congee’s origins go back further, to approximately 1,000 B.C., during the Zhou dynasty.
Regardless of its starting point, congee has outlived hundreds of now-extinct species and even an explorer or two who thought he’d find a fountain of youth. Most people think of congee as a rice porridge, but the term generally refers to almost any watery gruel. Depending on where you lived in Asia, your congee might have been prepared with millet, barley, corn or even a legume such as mung beans, mixed with or without rice. For some reason, the South China version made with rice (called “jook” in Cantonese, or “soft rice”) has conquered all, probably because it’s creamy and mild and, as noted above, beloved by babies and the elderly. It has to be the blandest food you’ll ever love.