Morning bowl of oatmeal, meet your Eastern counterpart: Chinese congee. You may have heard this popular breakfast dish referred to as rice porridge, gruel, or jook, but how much do you really know about this staple Chinese food? We give you a straight-forward guide to one of our favorite Chinese food dishes and even some recipes to try at home.
Chinese congee, 粥 (zhōu) in Chinese, is made by boiling or steaming rice in a large amount of water for several hours. The rice absorbs as much water as it can until it begins to disintegrate into a warm, thick, and mushy consistency. According to Chinese legend, the Yellow Emperor – figure from 2,500 BCE who founded China – also created this simple meal by mixing rice with water and salt, and has since been enjoyed and reinvented by the Chinese for 4,500 years. Its health benefits include boosting longevity, soothing the ill, and strengthening the digestive system, and congee is also considered a healthier and more energizing breakfast than Western oatmeal.
Though the number of variations is immeasurable, Chinese congee can be categorized into two different types of porridge: ordinary and colored. Ordinary congee is simple white rice that is boiled and served as a side dish, sometimes for dipping. Colored congee, on the other hand, can be rice with a mixture of any other ingredient and is served as a main dish, generally breakfast. The types of colored congee are infinite and often take on flavors and ingredients of their region (for example, gingko congee in Guilin). The possible variations of Chinese congee are so extensive, that someone was actually able to go an entire year eating congee without getting bored.
There are also several variations on how to cook congee, depending on what you have in your kitchen.
Laba Traditional Festival
On the eighth day of the twelfth lunar month Chinese celebrate the Laba Festival by eating laba or eigth-treasure porridge. The name of this Chinese congee comes directly from the festival: “la” being the name of the twelfth lunar month and “ba” being the pronunciation for eight in Chinese. It is believed that this date marks the Day of Enlightenment – day that Sakyamuni realized the truth and became the Buddha – and was originally celebrated by making sacrifices to one’s ancestors.
However a congee-eating tradition began during the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279) to honor the Buddha’s six years of eating only rice, and grew in popularity during the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911). Today, family and friends will celebrate by eating laba congee.
Laba congee, or eight-treasures porridge, originally was made from eight ingredients consisting of grains, nuts, beans, seeds, and dried fruits. Today there are several different variations of laba congee, but most will have the following ingredients:
- Glutinous rice or Chinese barley
- Black rice
- Corn flakes, sesame seeds or lotus seeds
- Peanuts, walnuts, or pine nuts
- Dates or goji berries
- Red beans or other types of beans
For the true Chinese food lovers out there, you can try some of these Chinese congee recipes at home. With so many variations, you can pick the best Chinese congee recipe for you, from coughing or asthma soothers to the most famous variation of this favorite Chinese food, from Sichuan congee for spice-lovers to the “Laba” eight-treasure porridge for balance or for a “mixed” congee.