In Praise of Congee – The New York Times
My rice cooker was made and bought at a low cost, a stocky plastic and rounded metal device. I chose mine from H Mart’s selection because it only had two settings – cook and hot – and pastel flowers stamped on its curve. I found it charming: my rice cooker is trying. I also try, because cooking is not one of my strengths. I’ve always approached it as a means to an end (dinner), which, because I lack cooking skills, is just a means to another end (calorie intake).
One of the few meals that I can confidently prepare is congee, a kind of porridge commonly eaten for breakfast in many Asian countries. Congee is made entirely of rice and water and is in itself incredibly bland. Bowls can act as flavor gulfs into which sauces and seasonings are absorbed and disappear. I have a childhood memory of myself, 8, using up to half a bottle of soy sauce to flavor a stubborn congee; I woke up the next morning with a sore throat from the sodium. I now garnish my congee with side dishes. More traditional eaters usually look for pickled vegetables and canned eggs. My accessories are less orthodox, because I often buy them pre-prepared: I like the kimchi, the puffed tofu soaked in sesame oil and the salty touches of dried anchovies.
I spent my childhood in Hong Kong with my mother, while my father lived in China most of his life and all of mine. In both places, the congee was ubiquitous but commonplace, the kind of meal served as a stopgap against hunger. Because I have no memory of wanting to congee, I was surprised by the dawning pleasure I felt once I started doing it. It’s an easy and economical dish, but there is also an alchemical thrill to the process. You combine two basic components and come back to a strange new material: a substance with the disturbing sensation of hugging. I love that slight tinge of coarseness, when a mouth suddenly has to feel instead of just taste. There is comfort in every spoonful. Food for toddlers, food for chicks.
I love the disgusting synonyms this kind of meal conjures up – slop, gruel, goop – and their ogreish consonants. To put it mildly, a jar of congee can bring to mind the mysteries of cafeteria food or a mediocre buffet with those metal ladles you carefully seek out. It is a cauldron food, in which finesse is sacrificed for the collective satiety of the maximum appetite. Now that the pandemic has changed the way we think about eating together, making it impossible to share food without thinking about bacterial exchange or contagion, I am nostalgic for this porridge. Even when I do it solo, stirring my open rice cooker in my cramped kitchen, the congee reminds me of what it was like to eat freely, casually, with strangers.