Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

A Hearty Dish to Set before the King

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

A Hearty Dish to Set before the King

Article excerpt

The large clay pot of chicken congee is simmering on the stove, emitting a warm and ravishing aroma. In another ten minutes, the family will be sitting around the table, sharing, laughing and reminiscing. This is a regular weekend scene in my household: a congee feast.

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Rice porridge is popular across Asia--from Korea and Japan to Vietnam and Malaysia. The word "congee" is believed to have originated from the ancient Tamil people in India and northern Sri Lanka; their word "kanji" refers to "porridge made with rice". In China, southerners who speak Cantonese call it joak, while it is xifan in Mandarin. As far back as the Zhou Dynasty (1, o46.-256BC), our ancestors made congee with different bases: wheat, barley, corn, tapioca and sorghum. However, rice has always been the most desired grain. In times of famine (of which there were many), congee's adaptability saved many lives.

The dish makes an early appearance in literature in 636AD, when the Book of Zhou, an official history of the Northern Zhou Dynasty, records: "Emperor Huang Di was the first to cook congee with millet as the ingredient." It was then a food of the nobility, eaten with gold-tipped ivory chopsticks. The food's popularity quickly spread beyond the court and it became a staple.

Its popularity must be due to its simplicity. Grab a cup of rice, add ten times the amount of water, bring it to the boil in a pot and let it cook on medium-high heat for an hour or so and you have yourself a pot of the very basic, plain-rice congee. (For those who like their congee thick, simply use more rice or put in less water.) Although congee can be served plain, more usually, ingredients such as meat, seafood and vegetables are added into the pot for flavour and texture.

Since the Ming Dynasty, which began in 1368, joak has been thought of as having medicinal properties: much like chicken soup, it has become a tasty remedy prepared by mothers and grandmothers. …

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