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Hidden Hong Kong: A history of congee, the humble rice porridge

By Allie Cooper 26 August 2022

Header images courtesy of Mr.choppers and Takeaway (via Wikimedia Commons)

Despite its modest appearance and basic ingredients, congee (粥; zuk1) is more than just simple rice porridge. It has existed as a food staple since ancient times, and the benefits of this humble dish are endless. A bowl of congee is a bowl of healing and comfort. As the Southern Song poet Lu You says, “Eating congee will bring me eternal life.” (食粥可以延年)

As far as Hong Kong comfort food goes, congee has no equal. It’s endlessly customisable based on what you need and what your taste buds are craving for the day, transitioning easily from plain, nourishing congee that nurses the sick back to health, to hearty rice porridge bowls for cold winter days with additions like chicken, fish, or even Chinese crullers (油炸鬼; jau4 zaa3 gwai2). A culinary concoction of love, congee is enjoyed by Hongkongers of all ages. It is clear that the dish’s roots run deep in local society.

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Photo: Connie Ma (via Wikimedia Commons)

Congee’s cultural roots

While its name stems from a Tamil word—kanji (கஞ்சி)—congee’s origins can be traced all the way back to the Zhou dynasty in China, roughly 3,000 years ago. It was eaten by emperors and peasants alike—so much so that particular preferences developed over time.

In her article on congee, PhD student Zoë Hu connects the modest dish with human ingenuity in the face of hunger. During the Covid-19 pandemic, she made congee, “stirring my open rice cooker in my cramped kitchen,” and reflected upon the communal spirit of this economical recipe. Rice and congee have always been a surefire way to feed a crowd under dire circumstances, as countries with long histories of suffering from famine, warfare, and natural disasters know. With the labour-intensive dedication that goes into farming rice, it made sense for the staple crop to blossom into a primary meal that would sustain a community through times of need, without the addition of other ingredients.

A Cantonese phrase goes, “When we have rice, we share, and if we only have congee, we share, too.” (有米就分享,只有粥我們也分享). It speaks of the camaraderie that was borne of the culture of congee, and communities that support each other through thick and thin.

Congee’s international variations

Ingredients used vary across regions. For instance, the Cantonese congee is heaped with coriander to increase appetite, dispel depression, and relieve pain; garlic chives to dispel cold, disperse blood stasis, enhance physical strength; fresh ginger to remove toxins, destroy bacteria, and deodorise; and scallion to provide an antioxidant effect and boost the immune system. On the other hand, variations like the Shanghainese congee insist on tucking into steaming bowls of rice porridge with cold sides like pickled mustard greens and a salted duck egg. Chiuchow-style congee features cooked oysters and watery consistency.

With the help of travellers and traders, the rice porridge dish made its way across the world. Based on an enduring combination of grain and water, it’s hardly surprising that there are congee equivalents in every community, like porridge and grits. Asian countries boast their own versions of congee: hsan pyoke (“rice boiled”) in Myanmar, bubur in Indonesia, okayu in Japan, jok in Thailand, lugaw and arroz caldo in the Philippines, and many more.

Congee in the modern day

Considering its barebones beginnings, it may come as a surprise that the unassuming congee has endured—even flourished—well into the present day. Its widespread appeal is based on the very premise of its long history, which more people are beginning to focus on.

Celebrating traditional foods can bring benefits to our health, according to biochemist and physician Catherine Shanahan, MD. Her book, Deep Nutrition, expounds on the importance of our ancestors’ common nutritional habits. Here, we learn that congee is not just a reflection of our past but also a tried-and-tested way to get unprocessed nutrients into our body—long before chemicals and factory-produced meals dominated the culinary world.

Developments in technology and society are not inherently harmful, though, and can be a useful tool in the right hands. Once, the love put into cooking congee was tantamount to the attention needed to create one bowl. A pot of congee couldn’t be left on a stove for more than an hour: it required babysitting to ensure that the dish would not burn or scorch.

With modern rice cookers, however, it’s easier than ever to make your own congee without sacrificing modern habits or short attention spans. New rice cookers come with versatile functions that make simmering congee easy and accessible. A model that doubles as a steamer, for example, allows even beginner cooks to effortlessly put together a bowl of congee, while simultaneously cooking vegetables, meat, or fish in the steam tray attached.

Instant Pot congee is another contemporary iteration of congee-making that leverages technology, and it can produce delicious rice porridge with little to no effort. Simply combine the rice, your broth or liquid of choice, and your favourite seasoning, then follow the cooking instructions on the Instant Pot for congee and let the pressure release naturally.

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Photo: Meowsom3 (via Shutterstock)

What does the future hold for congee?

Congee will continue to feed Asian appetites and serve as comfort food for various communities, as the humble roots of the dish were built through centuries-long devotion. It has seen a spike in popularity in the Western world, although not without controversy.

In our city alone, the vast range of congee joints and which restaurant serves the superior bowl remains a hotly debated topic amongst discerning locals. However, whether it’s Hong Kong-style or Chiuchow-style that diners prefer, the variety available is merely a testament to the warm and comforting hold that congee has on Hongkongers, even well into the future.

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Allie Cooper

Contributor

Allie Cooper is a digital nomad who followed her passion for travelling after many years of studying history. As a freelance writer, she loves to write about the connection between food and culture, as well as music and fashion. You can find her working on her journal and chronicling her adventures across the world, which she hopes to publish one day.

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