I fell in love with congee while living just north of Taipei in 2011. As a vegetarian, I was delighted to discover that Taiwan is a leading producer of fake meat products: I sampled vegetarian, imitation versions of everything from ham and squid to pig’s blood, fish balls, “chicken butt,” and pork floss, along with the requisite stinky tofu, which left me impressed (and slightly disturbed) by the distinctive funk that seemed to linger in my throat and sinus cavities for hours afterwards. As it turns out, it can be pretty tricky to get a hold of a vegetarian meal when you’re not at an explicitly all-vegetarian restaurant in Taiwan. When I traveled around the island, congee was often my savior at meat-laden, complimentary hotel breakfast buffets. The glutinous rice porridge was almost always there at the end of the buffet, steaming away in a gigantic rice cooker flanked by containers of toppings that offered the promise of a simple, comforting breakfast.
Fast forward to winter of 2016: I’ve been back in the US for three years, living on a steady diet of bread, cheese, and sugar in an apparent attempt to compensate for the American junk food FOMO I experienced during a year of (entirely inadvertently) eating healthy meals that consisted mainly of fruit, rice and vegetables in Taiwan. It’s a culinary bacchanalia that’s gone on for about two years and eleven months too long.
In an effort to return to restore a little balance to my consumption habits and soothe my gut’s baffled-AF microbiome, I embarked on a “healthy Veganuary” initiative, which I kicked off by desperately trying to learn how to love oatmeal. It didn’t work.
I stirred in everything from almond butter and raspberry preserves to fresh and dried version of every fruit I could get my hands on—toasted coconut flakes, maple syrup, and brown sugar—but none of it ever quite hit the spot. As it turns out, I’m a ride-or-die fan of savory breakfast, and sweetness just doesn't do much for me in the morning.
The texture of oatmeal made me yearn for the simple but delicious, savory congee breakfasts I’d enjoyed in Taiwan, and this set off a light bulb. What if, instead of traditional congee, I used oats in place of white rice for a savory porridge base?
I immediately started making what I like to refer to as "oat-gee” (because breakfast loves a good portmanteau—like “brunch” and “Cronuts”—and “con-meal” sounds disgusting). It quickly became my favorite, go-to healthy breakfast. I missed it during my sweltering east coast summer of not-at-all savory smoothies, and now that cooler weather has returned, I’m overjoyed to be reunited with oats—a sentiment I once never could’ve imagined myself feeling toward those bland little flakes.
Here’s how I make them delicious:
Using the porridge setting and the timer on my Zojirushi rice cooker, I cook steel cut oats into a creamy porridge overnight. I get two servings out of 1/2 cup of dry oats and 2 1/2 cups of water, but this ratio can be adjusted according to how soupy or thick you like your porridge. This can also be done in a slow cooker. Either way, I like to salt the oats a little, and sometimes I’ll throw in a hunk of ginger or a clove of garlic, too.
In the morning, I give the oats a good stir to mix in any clumps and add more hot water as needed to get the texture where I want it. Then I scoop out a steaming bowl of the oat porridge and do it up with my favorite congee toppings: cubes of silken tofu, fresh ginger, green onions, a douse of soy sauce and a dash of black vinegar, ground Sichuan peppercorn flakes, and a generous tablespoon of crispy fried garlic. I like to purchase the garlic in bulk from my neighborhood Asian grocery store because it’s guaranteed to be light, airy, and extra-crispy, but you can certainly toast up your own.
If I'm feeling indulgent (read: it’s a weekend), I'll add some additional, more luxurious toppings: a poached or gently fried egg, some pickled mustard greens, a handful of spicy peanuts, and a drizzle of chili and/or sesame oil. On those mornings when I feel like throwing all pretenses of healthfulness to the wind, I’ll even toast up a yautiao (a deep-fried, unsweet Chinese cruller stick, also available for purchase at most Asian groceries) from the freezer for dunking.
This vegan breakfast (vegetarian if eggs are added) is high in protein and fiber, and you can easily make a deeply satisfying portion for under 300 calories (or not, if you elect to go H.A.M. on the super-luxurious toppings, of course). It can also all be prepped in advance and packed up in a thermos and a small Tupperware or bento box for consumption at work—just be prepared to face extremely envious co-workers.