How do you feel about congee? It’s an odd question as far as cocktail chatter goes, but I am actually, honestly, curious to know. Because if we’re really being honest here, I have hated congee all my life. It is one of those essential Chinese foods, made of nothing more than rice. How much more Chinese can you get? Not much more. Whether or not you enjoy congee is almost a litmus test to gauge just how Chinese you are. Congee, as I’ve felt my entire life, is one of those things that is so tasteless you had to have grown up with it, with no other choice for food, to really enjoy it – like my grandmother, who refined her palate during several decades of famine. I’m pretty sure there’s nothing inherently appealing about eating fish heads or rotten eggs. That’s where I’ve categorized congee all these years, with fish heads. Actually, that’s not fair, as fish heads are delicious in stews.
So that was my theory of the world and why everybody eats what they do. Until one day, I met a curious foreigner who professed his affection for congee. This man, who was not even afflicted with a case of sinophilia, said he enjoyed the creamy texture, and found its inoffensive nature inviting. In fact, he preferred it to most other Chinese breakfast foods. I was amazed. But doesn’t it offend you with its blandness? It’s non-existence? What is this thing doing in front of me, masquerading as food? I ranted and raved, while my co-interlocutor slowly backed away in fear.
Later on, I thought about the situation, and tried to understand a love of congee from an intellectual point of view. I suppose, the creamy texture is comforting, and not unlike hot oatmeal, except without the chewy, lovely texture. It was the blandest of everything bland. On the other hand, on a cold morning, I suppose it could be a way to ease into the day, but then why wouldn’t you have a bowl of wontons instead? I was at a loss.
Then I visited Hong Kong and a whole world opened up. Southern congee is nothing like the bland, northern swill I grew up with. Southern congee is deeply savory, a mouthful re-enacts the consumption of a whole, lovingly stewed animal in one meltingly creamy spoonful. Sometimes there is a burst of freshness from leafy vegetables and fresh chopped scallions. Sometimes there’s an intense bite of preserved egg, a little umami explosion. But it is never, ever bland. Stock is simmered with pork ribs or entire chickens or the freshest of fish, dried scallops or cured ham or even orange peel. The pot simmering, the bubbles dancing at the center, for hours and hours and hours. Add to this, the rice. And what comes out is not grains of rice in a watery gruel, but a unified, silky, base for whatever you want to hang velvets of soft flavor on. Chicken, pork, fish, even oysters.
Since my revelation, I’ve tried time and again to replicate that magic at home. But alas, at heart, I am a northerner, and to my detriment, I will always cook like a northerner. My stock and soup skills will always be subpar by southern standards. My southern congees are always several rungs beneath the real thing, lacking complexity and body. While I work on perfecting my savory congees, I’ve started to veer towards the sweeter varieties which do not need a base of exquisite stock. I use pumpkin, a classic addition, to round out the body of the congee. Roasting it adds a depth to the flavor. A touch of coconut milk at the beginning gives it a rice pudding kind of richness. It’s not the congee I dream about, but it certainly beats the kind my grandmother grew up on.
Roasted Pumpkin Congee with Toasted Almonds
(serves 3, freezes well)
1 medium sized pumpkin
1 tbsp soft butter
1 tbsp sugar
1 cup rice
5 cups water
pinch of salt
1 cinnamon stick
½ cup coconut milk
Almonds, sliced and toasted
Heat oven to 200°C. For those without an oven, a good toaster oven is fine. Peel and cut the pumpkin into one inch chunks. Smear the chunks with butter, then sprinkle with sugar. Roast for 30 minutes or until soft and golden brown. In the meantime, rinse rice well. Combine the rinsed rice with the water, salt, cinnamon stick and coconut milk in a pot and bring to the boil. Lower the heat and leave to simmer, half covered, for an hour. Then add the roasted pumpkin, saving a few chunks for garnish at the end. Simmer for another 30 minutes, or until the rice becomes creamy and you can no longer distinguish the individual grains. Ladle the congee into individual bowls, top with roasted pumpkin and almonds.