Congee—and every other version of rice porridge that’s made across East and Southeast Asia—is one of the earliest and most enduring forms of culinary thrift. For centuries, maybe even millennia, Chinese cooks have stretched the grain by boiling it in plenty of water until it dissolves into something that hovers between starch and soup. Depending on the regional style, the rice might be simmered with pork bones or preserved greens until it’s thick and glossy (juk in Cantonese) or cooked in plain water or light broth to a thinner consistency and served with a variety of savory accompaniments (baizhou in Mandarin). In either case, the milky-white gruel is Dickensian in the best possible way: plain sustenance that’s economical and appealing at any time of day.
That’s particularly true at breakfast, when congee (a generic term for the dish borrowed from a Tamil word that describes grain-based soups) is consumed the way oatmeal is in Western diets. It’s also classic fast food at lunch and popular late at night, when it’s just the thing to tide over an empty stomach till morning. It’s even served as baby food; as gentle, hydrating fare when you’re sick; and as nourishment for the elderly.
Congee is also a dead-simple, forgiving thing to make; without much thought, you can improvise a version that’s good enough. But the variety of rice, the type and amount of liquid, and the cooking time all affect its flavor and consistency, and the more I make congee (these days I make it often—when the ground frosts, when I have a cold, when I have fried shallots to use up), the more I want a precise formula I can repeat that’s better than good enough.
I’m partial to both the creamy consistency of juk and the contrast between baizhou’s clean, neutral base and assertive accompaniments. And since I found plenty of recipes that fall in between those distinct styles, I felt justified in making my own ideal hybrid: a thick but pourable porridge done up with an assortment of toppings that would make congee fun to cook and versatile to eat. With kitchen staples (soy sauce and fresh herbs), it would be a simple snack; with substantial proteins (runny eggs and stir-fried meats), it would be the ultimate kind of rice bowl.
The question was how to nail that perfect porridge consistency—particularly the glossy liquid surrounding the rice grains—so I dug into the factors that affect it most: the ratio of water to rice and the cooking time.
According to recipes I found, ratios can vary from about 7 parts water to 1 part rice to more than double that. I tried a few, bringing 1 cup of rice and various amounts of water to a boil in identical Dutch ovens and gently simmering them uncovered for 1½ hours. It didn’t take long to see that the results were better—thick and creamy yet fluid rather than stodgy—when there was more water in the mix. After a bit more tinkering, I settled on a ratio of 10 cups liquid to ¾ cup rice, slightly higher than 13 to 1.
I’d been seasoning the pot with ¾ teaspoon of salt, but at this point I also opted to cut the water with 1 cup of chicken broth, which added just enough savory backbone without obscuring the congee’s clean, neutral flavor.
If you’ve cooked much white rice, you know that it doesn’t take more than 15 minutes or so for the grains to turn tender. But most congee recipes call for simmering the rice for a minimum of 45 minutes or as long as 1½ hours. This allows for the grains to thoroughly break down and release their starches into the cooking liquid. Only when that happens does the liquid thicken and take on that glossy, pearly sheen.
Using my newly calibrated liquid-to-rice ratio, I confirmed that 1½ hours of gentle but steady simmering produced the smoothest, creamiest congee. But could I expedite the process? I tried soaking the raw rice and even soaking and then freezing it before cooking (the latter causes the grains to burst and break down more quickly). Neither helped much. But what if I just cranked up the heat?
As it turned out, vigorously simmering the rice produced porridge every bit as creamy as the low-and-slow method did in about half the time. But I had to partially cover the pot to speed cooking and minimize evaporation, which caused the starchy liquid to boil over. (It’s the same problem that causes a pot of oatmeal to erupt: The starches form a viscous gel that swells and blocks the water bubbles from escaping. Eventually, so many bubbles build up that the porridge spills over.) Fortunately, I could avoid the problem by rinsing the rice to remove any excess surface starch that would fuel the formation of starchy gel, and wedging a wooden spoon between the lid and the pot kept them well separated, giving the bubbles plenty of space to escape.
With my porridge formula clocking in at under an hour, I put together a few easy toppings. But I always keep “project” accompaniments in mind, too; rich stir-fried or braised meats or condiments such as salty, funky pickles or fiery, deeply savory chili crisp can transform this dish into something so extraordinary that you might forget it comes from almost nothing.
Soothing, simple to make, and endlessly versatile, China's iconic savory rice porridge should be part of your regular dinner—or breakfast—rotation.