"When life gives you bad rice, make porridge."

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[Photographs: Chichi Wang]

Quiet dinners at home usually begin with my rice cooker. Using the plastic measuring cup that comes with the cooker, I scoop out exactly one cup, fill the basin to the requisite water level, and the all-important matter of having perfectly cooked rice to accompany my meal is done.

Except this time around, I couldn't locate the measuring cup.

I rifled through my cabinets and found, among other choice items, ten different types of flours (when was the last time I used that bag of fava bean flour?), five separate bags of glutinous rice, and several cans of coconut milk strewn about, each purchased absentmindedly for fear of running out of curry supplies.

But no cup. Eyeballing the amount of rice as best I could, I set the rice to cook and hoped for palatable results. Forty minutes later, I opened the lid to find a larger-than-usual portion of obstinately rigid, undercooked rice.

When life gives you bad rice, make porridge.

Many Asian cuisines have their own renditions of porridge or congee, but the fundamental premise is the same: you take old rice, boil it in liquid, and add things for additional flavor and contrast. The rice, then, is merely the conduit for the broth and other additions.

While cooking the perfect pot of rice can be trying, there's really no wrong way to eat porridge. Some people prefer the grains of rice to be tender yet discrete; other like a mixture that's thoroughly blended together.

The cooking times will vary according to your preference for the consistency. A half-hour will cook the rice just until it expands and becomes tender, while a full hour of simmering will yield a more viscous, blended mixture.

Here are a few suggestions for a soothing, nourishing bowl of porridge:

The Broth

While water is perfectly acceptable liquid for cooking rice, I'm never fully satisfied with my congee unless it's been made with a good quality stock or soup broth. If you're starting out with a store-bought stock, bolster it with ginger and scallions. When I make congee, I use whatever broth I happen to have at the moment, whether it's chicken or pork bone soup.

Adding Protein and Vegetables

Go easy on the meat and fish. Add slivers of well-stewed meat (a natural choice if you're using soup broth to make the porridge), or thinly sliced sections of fish. If you're incorporating a fish fillet, marinate the sections of fish in a mixture of soy sauce and wine prior to adding it to the pot.

Once the congee has reached your desired consistency, bring the mixture to a full boil, then add the slices of fish, turning off the heat as you do so. The heat from the porridge will just cook through the fish, ensuring that the texture is delicate and tender.

Hearty vegetables, like sweet potatoes and taro, can be cubed and added to the rice at the beginning of the cooking process. The vegetables will help to thicken the porridge, providing a welcome sweetness to the blander rice.

Crispy Additions

Since the rest of the porridge will be soupy and soft, adding a crispy element will introduce some textural contrast. The Chinese are fond of adding slices of you tiao (fried dough cruellers) to bowls of congee, but you can also add fried slices of onions or garlic as well.

Garnishes and Boosts of Flavor

No bowl of porridge is complete without aromatic toppings. Since congee is essentially a cheap dish—making use of old rice in sparing quantities—adding fragrant but cheap garnishes is integral to the experience of parsimony. Cilantro and green onions, or a dash of chili oil, fish sauce, or sesame oil go a long way towards enhancing the flavor.

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