Friday, January 9, 2009
Congee: A Dish of Propriety
By definition, the English word "congee" describes porridge of an Asian background. The word is an Anglicized form of the Tamil kanji, a kind of rice gruel. Congee is thus distinguished from cereal based porridge. Rice porridge is found throughout Asia. It is commonly served to the infirm as it is easily digestible. Yet, anyone can enjoy it as a tasty meal throughout the day. Recipes of the Jaffna Tamils includes a reminiscence about eating a tea time meal of puli kanji (tamarind kanji) at home with one's family, as the monsoon rains soaked the world outside (Nesa Eliezer, ed. Recipes of the Jaffna Tamils Hyderabad, India: Orient Longman, 2003).
Historically, congee has served a more significant role as a ritual food, correlating with ritual fasting. A thin gruel was a suitable choice for acclimating the body to food, while providing concentrated nutrients. According to Ammini Ramachandran on peppertrail.com, in Kerala, kanji was often eaten on every new moon, a time of ancestral prayer. This was in accordance with beliefs that linked fasting or eating simple foods like congee, with spiritual ascension.
In China, the link between congee and ritual may be traced back to the 1st Century BCE and possibly earlier. The Chinese word 粥 zhou is mentioned in the Li Ji (Record of Rites) compiled by Dai the Younger in the 1st Century CE as the first food served to family members after fasting due to the death of a parent (H.T. Huang, Science and Civilisation in China, v. VI: 5 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, 82). Many other ancient texts treat congee in this context. Such references in the works of the 4th Century philosopher, Mencius, may be viewed in bilingual format on The Chinese Text Project. The Shiliao bencao, a Materia Dietetica from 670 CE discussed the use of green tea as a broth for congee, thus enhancing the gruel with the medicinal properties green tea was valued for at that time (Science and Civilisation, v. VI: 5, 555).
Because of its simplicity and associations with ritual and religious rites, congee has long been a symbol of deference to the proprieties of moral behavior, satisfying both physical and spiritual needs.
I have included two recipes for Chinese style congee. Of course I am generalizing, as the dish varies greatly throughout China.
Green Tea Congee
1/2 cup rice
3 cups water
3 heaping tsp green tea leaves, placed in a disposable tea bag or cheesecloth or use 3 teabags
salt to taste
strips of baked or fried tofu
toasted sesame seeds
fried or poached egg
1. Bring water to boil in a large pot. Add tea in bag and rice and reduce to a simmer.
2. Remove teabag after 7-10 minutes.
3. Continue to cook until the rice is replete with water and a porridge-like consistency is reached, about 40 minutes. Season with salt and serve.
For a sweet alternative, add some grated ginger and sugar or honey.
Ginger Garlic Congee
This dish is excellent for staving off or treating a cold.
1/2 cup long grain rice
3 cups vegetable broth or water
1 Tbs neutral oil
5 garlic cloves, minced
1 Tbs grated ginger
salt or soy sauce
toasted sesame seeds, peanuts, or gingko nuts
1. Heat oil in a pot and add garlic and ginger. As they begin to release their aroma, add the rice and give it all a stir.
2. Add the vegetable broth or water, stir and cook until the rice is replete with water and a porridge-like consitency is reached, about 40 minutes. Season with salt or soy sauce and pepper, spoon into bowls and add toppings.