When I was growing up in Hong Kong, my parents would wake up early on Saturdays to snag us a prime table at the neighborhood dim sum parlor. The restaurant was always packed by the time we arrived. Patrons chatted noisily while trying to flag down one of the many roving pushcarts. These trolleys pedaled everything from slippery shrimp dumplings to thick slabs of pan-fried radish cakes. Most of the trolleys looked the same except for one type that stood out from the rest: the congee cart.
Instead of transporting stacks of bamboo steamers, the congee carts hid their wares in vats covered by large metal lids. My dad always waved one down as it passed by. The lady behind the trolley would stop at our table, lift the lid off her cart and ladle out a bowl of steaming congee—a thick, porridge-like concoction made from white rice and water. I couldn’t understand why my dad loved this dish so much. It was always served way too hot (I’ve burnt my tongue on multiple occasions). And even when it cooled down enough to a reasonably edible temperature, the jook—as it’s called in Cantonese—tasted bland and boring.
It didn’t help that congee was also a common sight at home. My mom often made it during the holidays as a morning-after cure to offset the big festive dinner from the night before (congee is thought to soothe and cleanse the digestive system). It became a post-Thanksgiving family tradition, where any leftover meat and carcass would be turned into a big pot of turkey congee that would last for days. I dreaded this. After all, congee is often described as the Asian equivalent of gruel, and what kid wants to eat gruel?
Years later, after I left home and moved halfway across the globe. I discovered that one of the perks of moving out was the freedom to start the day the way I wanted to. I experimented with all sorts of breakfast cereals and had three-egg omelets folded with different fillings each week. The options seemed endless. It wasn’t until I got hit with a bad case of the flu that congee crept back into my culinary consciousness. Mom used to feed this to my siblings and me whenever we got sick as kids because it was filling but also easy enough to digest. If you had a bowl of jook, you were being taken care of. And for the first time, that’s all I wanted.
The problem was that none of the restaurants in my neighborhood had congee on their menus. Most of the American-Chinese places prioritized full-flavored dishes such as sweet and sour pork and General Tso’s chicken. So not only was I craving congee, I had to make my own.
A quick Google search yielded thousands of recipes, including elaborate versions made with eight different types of dried fruits, pulses and grains. But basic congee is fairly simple. At least for the Cantonese version that I’m used to, it’s made from roughly one part of uncooked white rice and six parts of water. The rice is boiled then gently simmered until the grains break down into an easily slurp-able form. It should be a foolproof process—after all, how hard can it be to overcook rice?
Turns out, it’s hard. I burned my first batch. A thick layer of rice settled and stuck to the bottom of the pot while the top was heavy and gloppy like glue. It was close to inedible and it was a nightmare trying to clean the pot (I soaked it in hot soapy water for almost a week). I tried again—this time, with a little more patience and a lot more stirring. It took me several attempts to get it right but when I did, it was warm, brothy and hearty. It was glorious.
Learning how to make congee woke me up to its simple comforts. It’s one of the dishes I make a beeline for whenever I’m back home. I order steaming bowls studded with jelly-like century eggs and a side of yautiao—batons of deliciously greasy deep-fried dough designed to be dunked into the soupy rice like churros in hot chocolate. I’ve also tried congee flavored with insanely rich seafood stock and roe; I’ve had it Teochow-style, which is runnier than what I’m used to with grains of rice and baby oysters still intact in a clear broth; and when I traveled to Seoul with my sister, we staved off the pre-Spring chill with massive bowls from a restaurant that spins congee from ingredients ranging from abalone (jeonbokjuk) to sweet pumpkin (hobakjuk). It may have taken me several years, but now I’m the one waving down the congee cart.