Rise of the congee

When it comes to traditional porridge, the rice gruel called congee may not make the grade today, but that does little to diminish the bowlful of goodness and ancestry of the dish as an ‘Empire Maker’.

When it comes to delicious food, gruels, much like porridges, often do not make the grade. Primarily,  what does not work for them is how they look. Most of them are a simple mush of rice with a little liquid that gives it an appearance of baby food or, at worst, hospital food.

And yet, in the past few years, congee — a dish that dates back to when civilisation began —has seen a sort of revival among culinary custodians, chefs and those into healthy eating. Part of the reason is, of course, curiosity and the other part, says Chef Sharad Dewan (Regional Director, Food Production, The Park Hotel) is the taste. “Congee when made well can really be a treat for your palate which is filling, easy to digest with an extra punch of gut friendly goodness.”

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Congee originated in China and through travellers and traders, and became popular across the continent. Often, congee was colour coded according to seasons.

Culinary revivalist Chef Sabyasachi Gorai believes these are also the reasons why congee was so popular back in the day when it was served as the most important meal of the day and was had with a good supply of either smoked meats or vegetables, as part of the concept of a well-balanced diet. Incidentally, Chef Gorai’s tryst with congee began owing to both his travels to different parts of the world where he admits “congee was the safest food to consume” and his association with culinary history that has allowed him to understand how this bowl was the key to sustenance and good health.

“Back in the day,” says the curator of the Indus Valley Cuisine Pop Up, “congee making was an art that homemakers were supposed to excel in, given that it was one of the culinary methods that turned food edible by breaking it down to a consistency that could be easily consumed and provide instant results in the form of energy. Another reason for its popularity was that it was extremely functional since it needed only occasional supervision and left enough time for other work to be done.”

Chef Gorai, whose experiments with Asia’s oldest culinary delicacies began with gruels made of barley and maize, admits that among porridges back then, congee definitely was the one of the tastier versions, thanks to the use of rice, which was easy on the palate and lighter than say barley and other grains that took time to break down. Another reason for rice gruel’s popularity was the abundance of rice available.

Once introduced, rice grew in abundance and could be paired with other foods with relative ease and gave a similar sense of satiation. “Consequently,” says culinary historian Dr Ashish Chopra, “rice gruel or congee quickly became the go-to food for denizens, especially in rice-growing regions. Of course, there was the influence of travellers, especially from China, and warring armies that became instrumental in introducing their version of the congee, which was often not just made in rich meat stock and garnished with pieces that were charred over open flames, but also used different rice varieties.”

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Sanpiau is a version of congee developed by the tribes of Mizoram. It’s served with crisp pork belly and onion salad garnished with mustard cress.

Fascinatingly, while that culinary exchange made congee a popular dish among early civilisations, when it comes to the congee or kanji in India, it is very different from those served across Asia, says Chef Dewan, who in the version served at Zen (on request), uses a rich fish stock and a glutenous rice to get the right consistency. “The reason for this,” he continues, “is that sticky rice not only cooks better but adds that required texture to congee which when paired with charred pork or mushrooms and greens sauteed in garlic and little oil gives a better mouthfeel. Plus, it also works as a good palate cleanser.”

Concurs northeast culinary researcher Dr Geeta Dutta (Founder, A Foodies’ Diary) who makes a similar format called Sanpiau that is served with crisp pork belly and onion salad garnished with mustard cress ((microgreens). “It is a recipe developed by the tribes of Mizoram and is usually had during summers as it is light on the palate, easy to digest and works on keeping the body cool thanks to the interesting blend of rice and pork — two ingredients that are prized in Mizoram (and the rest of the northeast) for not only their cooling properties but for how they can satiate instantly. In fact, thanks to the plain flavours, congee is often considered to be a meal that one would have both as part of a detox and to crank up the body’s ability to function, especially during seasonal changes when most of the body’s immunity is dependent on the gut. And that is what a bowl of congee helps build.”

Curiously, it is congee’s composition which leaves so much room for experimentation that makes it one of the few dishes that can be attuned to needs. Explains Chef Gorai, “It isn’t just about the taste but also the occasion when congee can be served as a simple but wholesome gruel that is cooked in rich stock or can be layered with interesting foods that can turn it into a treat or for that matter sync it to the kind of food one needs to be able to sustain work.”

History, in fact, is replete with versions that were created for farmers, soldiers and even travellers who would make it according to whatever was available (and considered safe for consumption). “This uniqueness of congee,” adds Dr Chopra, “could have made it the ancestor to other healing recipes such as the payaru kanghi that is served down south with coconut thuvayal​ and the nombu kanji, a lightly spiced rice and lentil porridge that is served during Ramzan in the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu.”

Torani kanji
The Torani kanji is an Odia specialty, especially popular in the southern part of the state. Its unique sour taste comes from fermented rice water.
Image courtesy CulinaryXpress

And the Odia kanji, which unlike its brethren across India, is made with peja or fermented rice water. The beauty of this high on umami dish is that it is full of gut-friendly bacteria, whose virtues are further enhanced by tempering with curry leaves, panch phutan (traditional five spice mix) with chunks of ash gourd balancing the rather spicy kanji, which is had warm as a summer coolant rather than in a bowl. Fascinatingly, this version of kanji is among the dozen odd versions that are made across different households in the state to keep the gut healthy and disease at bay – and in making, follows the principle of kanjka, which is one of the oldest versions of congee in India. According to Kashyapa Samhita, an ancient medical scripture, kanjka is a medicinal sour rice soup made with parched podiari rice, long pepper, dried ginger, and pomegranate, served with deep fried lentil cakes called vatakas.

“This version of the dish,” according to Dakshina Ghosh (Deputy Director IIHM Bangalore), “today could be the popular Thayir Sadam in Kerala, Hendo Dakka in Bengal and Neeragaram or Pazhaya Soru kanji in Andhra Pradesh — each of which not only follow the traditional recipes but in composition, replicate the same goodness that congee afforded to people back in the day. Each of the dishes are light, easy to digest and pack a bowlful of bacteria goodness that strengthen the body’s immunity. One of the many reasons that most of the dishes are either served during seasonal changes or at a time when the body is more susceptible to the vagaries of nature like rains.”

Congees’ ability as an effective antidote wasn’t only advocated by Indian Vedas but Chinese medicine too. In Treatise on Cold Damage Disorders published in 219 BC, author and medicine expert Zhang Zhongjing calls congee “the miracle potion of good health”; a fact that was proven by Chinese medicine doctor Chun Yuyi who treated a disease of the emperor of Qi with congee, thanks to the variety of ways congee could be made for effective administration of medicine.

Congee, in fact, was said to be one of the dishes that even Buddha was fond of because of the calm, Zen-like feeling this easy-to-digest gruel evoked. Such was the goodness of congee that Chinese culture, where congee is said to have originated, once had a segment dedicated to this gruel that was colour coded for seasons.

“The now popular all-white congee,” says Chef Gorai, “was meant for winters. It was flavoured with root vegetables such as radish and was considered great for the lungs. The red was for the heart and had beetroot; the black was for deep winters and had seaweed and cured meats for flavour and additional nutrients.”

Interestingly, it is a theme that the Odia versions of kanji follow even today. Several varieties that are made for winters such as Surajmukhi. The ones made for spring include a bevy of greens that are used as flavourants to the fermented rice gruel.

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As popular as congee was in ancient times, it remains relevant even today. Aside from its light taste, easy-to-digest nature and nutritional benefits, it can also be fortified with fresh seasonal produce.

Thanks to its antidotal properties, congee, through history and now, remains a great culinary equaliser that appeals to people from all walks of life. What changes is the way gruel is presented, says Dr Dutta, who explains how unlike the water-based congee that was had by farmers and others, Ahom Kings loved theirs made in pork broth and ferns to give the congee its distinct aroma, taste and nourishment, and was often served as a work meal in the royal court and to the army on the move. “The reason,” she continues, “that congee was made this way was because the three ingredients needed for the dish were available through the year, and together, provided the nutrients necessary for people to function efficiently, and this included fighting in wars as well.”

So, what makes congee relevant today, aside from its balmy taste and easily digestible texture? Its unique ability to create a dish that is wholesome, says Ghosh, who finds congee a low-calorie, low-fat dish that can deliver all the goodness of not just rice, but also the different ingredients it is layered with. “In fact,” she continues, “it is a dish that can be fortified as per the season to get the best fresh produce available. As for the gruel itself, not just the rice used but also the medium it is cooked in can ensure that the dish is more functional. For instance, when congee is made in a broth, it is rich in minerals, amino acids, essential fatty acids and such that can help add flavour to the dish and strength to the bone. The addition of vegetable broth enhances fibre and antioxidant properties, while milk or seafood enhances the glutamine component for cell growth and muscle protein. The nutrition value is enhanced with the addition of greens and meat that crank up the protein quotient, helping to create a balanced meal that not only calms the body down by instantly releasing energy (congee has a high GI rate that makes it quick to digest) but also keeps supplying it with energy through the day.“

This was the reason that congee was preferred both by soldiers and monks, who saw it as a food that could keep hunger at bay, and hence, keep the focus on work. One of the many reasons that congee was often called a dish that built empires. For Chinese and Indian emperors, it helped maintain them too.

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

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