The woman behind the counter at the Wah Shing Kung Fu Gift Shop in Chinatown does not endorse my plan for the Wei-Tai 999 granules I just bought. I told the clerk that I’m thinking about mixing the “Gastro Granules,” a palliative for indigestion, into a congee for my wife, who’s suffering from an upset stomach of brain-numbing proportions. The employee insists I need to dissolve the little nuggets in hot water instead.
Undeterred, I take the package home, where I improvise on an idea I read about in Eileen Yin-Fei Lo’s cookbook “The Chinese Kitchen” (Morrow, 1999). The author explains that congee, back in the Ming dynasty, was used as a vehicle for medicinal herbs. I think: A small bowl of mild porridge, a little Chinese herbal medicine (now with sugar!) and some husbandly love, and Carrie should spring to her feet mere minutes after putting spoon to mouth.
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.
The dish was born from a human need still prevalent in the 21st century: It was “created as a way of stretching a meal in times of need, when there was not enough rice to go around,” writes Corinne Trang in “Essentials of Asian Cuisine” (Simon & Schuster, 2003). It’s not uncommon to prepare congee with one part rice to 10 parts water, flavoring the porridge with whatever remains in the pantry, essentially feeding a family with a cup of grains and leftovers. Think of it as Asian hash.
Congee typically is eaten for breakfast, but you can get it in the Washington area at any time of day, typically spiked with the ingredients beloved by Chinese immigrants, because they are the ones who order the porridge most in these parts.
Paul Kee in Wheaton serves a bowl studded with shredded pork, ginger and a preserved egg, cured for weeks, that lends the porridge a woodsy, almost fungal flavor. Mark’s Duck House in Falls Church serves a congee with Chilean sea bass cooked in small amounts of seasonings, sugar and sesame oil. My favorite is the one at Hollywood East in Wheaton, where the Yu family prepares a deeply savory version with beef, squid and peanuts. When eaten with a length of fried dough called yao tiew, the congee might be the most satisfying winter dish you’ll find around here.
So why don’t more Americans — and by “Americans,” I crassly mean those of non-Asian descent — embrace congee? Why hasn’t congee started to trickle into the mainstream, as have sushi, seviche, tapas and even banh mi and pho? Part of it, I think, is because there are still many inferior bowls available, in places such as Eat First in Chinatown, where I sucked down a watery, flavorless congee prepared with jellyfish and duck.
But a more plausible reason is one offered by Scott Drewno, executive chef at the Source, who ate his way through China earlier this year and has since been working to assimilate the country’s dishes and flavors into his menu. Drewno theorizes that the word “congee” simply doesn’t mean much to most Americans.
“If I write ‘congee’ [on the menu], people aren’t going to order it because they don’t know what it is,” he says. “It’s not mainstream enough.”
Still, Drewno has been tinkering with some congees, one of which requires day-old rice (much like the classic “rich and noble congee,” so called because only wealthy families in China had leftover rice) that the chef dries in the refrigerator, then pulverizes in the blender and prepares like risotto. Drewno hopes to introduce his congees to Source diners one day soon; he’s just not sure what to call them. The alternative monikers he has toyed with — rice porridge, creamed rice — might be even less appetizing than the original.
Name aside, congee might be a cook’s best friend. Easy to prepare (if time-consuming) and enjoyable on its own, it is also highly suggestible. It assumes whatever personality a cook can foist on it. “It’s pretty neutral on a taste level,” Drewno notes. “You can really do what you want with it.” The trick, he adds, is not to obliterate the flavor of the rice. Congee, after all, should still be congee, not a meat stew with rice.
Such was the mantra I had in mind as I prepared my own personalized congee, one that would incorporate some of my favorite flavors but still honor the inherent milkiness of the rice. That proved trickier than anticipated. My first attempt, a sort of turbocharged congee with spicy sausage and garlic and ginger, was dead on arrival. When paired with the mild starchiness of the rice, the rubbery, store-bought sausage was a traveling freak show trying to entertain a flock of sheep.
After spending several hours on that poor porridge, and after another miss, I had to take a deep breath and remind myself of a quote from Yuan Mei, the Qing dynasty writer, gourmand and author of “Food Lists of the Garden of Contentment”: “Officials and men of letters say it is better for a man to wait for his congee than to make the congee wait for him.” My third attempt would reward my fraying patience.
It was a riff on boeuf bourguignon, a dish I consider as vital to surviving winter as a good wool cap and a heavy overcoat. I prepared hunks of red-wine-braised pork shoulder perked up with Chinese five spice powder and a small colony of garlic cloves. Once finished with its laborious simmer toward tenderness, the pork, I figured, would be a succulent, slightly sweet, highly aromatic counterpoint to the porridge. I was right. I just forgot to factor in one thing: When folded into the congee, the braised pork turned the rice a deathly shade of gray. Prison walls look more appetizing by comparison.
When I told Drewno about my problem, he casually reminded me of how the Chinese serve their congees back home: with the extra ingredients spooned over the top, not incorporated into the rice. Problem solved. Now if Drewno — or anyone else — could only help me devise a congee to cure an upset stomach.