Congee is essentially a gruel. But don’t let the Dickensian horrors that word conjures up put you off a dish that is arguably more of a comfort food than staples of the genre like macaroni cheese.
Growing up in Singapore, this was a dish I remember eating throughout my childhood and one that is enjoyed at absolutely any time of the day. It makes a great breakfast, although I’ve had a few cultural misunderstandings over the nature of my particular breakfast porridge when asking for soy sauce and a salted duck egg to accompany it.
It’s a lovely lunch, particularly if you are feeling ill as it’s so easily digested. And I have great memories of 4am congee sessions after our nights out clubbing at Zouk in Singapore, where eating in the wee hours is a proud national pastime.
It can be based around any flavour, with mincemeat, fish, chicken, anchovies or ‘Teo Chew’ style (served plain with condiments on the side including preserved or pickled veg, fried ground nuts and crispy fried fish) all popular options.
For this Kentish Town Congee, I’m making use of the remains of a very English Sunday lunch and basing mine around a rich chicken stock.
Here’s what you need:
Roast chicken leftovers on the carcass
3 cloves of garlic
A generous nub of ginger
1 & ½ cups of jasmine rice
Bunch of spring onions
Crispy fried shallots
Sweet dark soy sauce
Bring 3 litres of water to boil in a big pan. Drop the chicken carcass into the water and boil on hard for 5 mins, then turn off the heat, cover the pan and leave the broth to cool.
Thoroughly rinse the rice and leave it aside in the sieve to dry. Chop up all the veg into small pieces.
After an hour, bring the chicken pan to the boil again before taking out the carcass to cool off. Fry the onion in another saucepan to a brown and soft consistency, then add the ginger. After a few minutes add the diced carrots and crushed garlic. Stir in the dry rice and fry it with the veg until it is clear.
Take a big ladle and add around half the stock. Leave it on a medium heat while you shred the chicken into small, torn pieces. Dump all the pieces in the pan and as the water reduces, keep it topped up from the stock. Keep doing this until the rice breaks down into a gruel. Add salt to taste.
Make an omelette from the eggs, adding a touch of baking powder to make it rise and fluff up. You can also add chopped chilli but I didn’t on this occasion as it was going to be served to kids and I didn’t want them pulling dramatic faces. Cut the omelette into strips. Ladle the porridge into bowl and sprinkle on the spring onions, parsley and crispy shallots (you can buy these in lots of places these days, or just dice some fresh ones up and frazzle them in oil until they are almost burned).
Best eaten with a china spoon rather than the orange plastic one seen here, but my daughter’s friend Jasmine was enjoying it so much she makes the perfect model for showing the joy and flexibility of this dish. I love the fact that a simple boiled rice porridge can pass such a rich personal culinary history to my children and introduce it to their wider friends too. Congee used to be something I had to seek out in Chinatown but I’m glad to see it appearing on more mainstream menus these days. It might be simple, but so often the very best dishes are.
Words: Mrs K