COMMENTARY, June 23 — Up until a few years ago, I didn’t even know what congee was.
My experience with it went no further beyond a setting I never touched on the dinky old microwave we used to have in the house.
And yet, I’ve seen, smelled, and tasted it all my life. I just knew it as porridge instead.
The first inkling that porridge was something else to the rest of the world came to me in a Neil Gaiman book, in which a character eats porridge with milk (gasp!) and honey.
Surreal dark fantasy is Gaiman territory, but surely it hadn’t stretched to include peculiar porridge pairings? A bit of Googling quickly resolved the congee/porridge dilemma, but it would be a while before I understood the significance of this humble dish to me.
Congee, or rice porridge, is derived from the Tamil word kanji. I grew up calling it 粥, zhou in Mandarin or in Cantonese, juk. It was breakfast, lunch, dinner, and it was even supper.
More importantly, it was food for the worst of times.
As a child, the only thing worse than being a sniffling snotty mess was having to eat congee while I was a sniffling snotty mess. "It’s good for you” and "Just eat it” still ring in my ears whenever I look back on these memories.
Growing up, I was most familiar with the Cantonese and Teochew variations of congee.
The rice grains in Teochew congee are still somewhat whole, giving it a relatively thin consistency and is usually served with a myriad of side dishes, including but not limited to stewed meats, pickled vegetables and salted eggs.
At home, the congee I ate was distinctly Cantonese; thick and velvety in texture, cooked in a simple chicken broth and usually flavoured with ginger.
It’s worth a mention that I abhorred ginger as a child; the slightest hint of it would turn me away from any dish.
And yet, years later, I couldn’t get enough of it. I was alone, away at college in the United States, and I fell violently sick.
It was the first time that I didn’t get the best part of being sick: having my parents dote over me like they used to when I was younger.
Instead, I was essentially bedridden and left to my own devices, with the latter portion feeling more lonely than free.
Prior to this, my approach to life as a largely self-involved college student was a cavalier one; I stayed hydrated with whatever cheap beer I could get my hands on and got plenty of rest in the four hours I slept on the weekends.
Now, la dolce vita came to a screeching halt, and so I did what any kid far from home would do: call Mom.
This is where I would put a needlessly complex recipe for my Mom’s congee if I had one, maybe even throw in an Uncle Roger-esque joke about "Asian moms not measuring anything” if I’m feeling banal.
While the truth is that she couldn’t give me a straight answer as to the ratio of stock to rice, I find that congee is, and I say this with the greatest respect, simple cooking.
Simple cooking that can be done by feel, by sight and by time. Simple cooking that soothes the soul, mends the mind and fuels the body. Simple cooking that takes nothing more than rice, water with a couple of Knorr chicken cubes (shoutout to Marco Pierre White) and forgetting about it in the rice cooker for about four hours; et voilà, life-giving sustenance.
It wasn’t the silkiest congee I’d ever had, but I couldn’t care less.
Each spoonful of that glorious stuff went down like the gentle caress of a warm, weighted blanket on a dark, dreary night.
It was my Ratatouille moment, when Anton Ego is brought back to his memory of eating his mother’s rustic ratatouille as a child, dropping his pen, jaw and cold front.
It was the motherly embrace I so dearly missed, delivered by congee. As I laid my gaze upon the bowl, filled with nothing more than grains of rice broken down beyond recognition, swimming in a pool of its own starch, I realised I was home.