No matter how you dress it, congee is comfort food

Jennifer Day
Chicago Tribune

Congee is a humble dish, a way to cope when rice stores were low. Stretch the grain by adding too much water, cook it into a hearty porridge, and throw in bits and pieces of whatever leftovers are on hand.

These simple dishes born of necessity often become our most soul-satisfying: Think chicken noodle soup. When Joanne Chang was a child, her mother made her congee whenever she was ill.

“For me, it’s comfort food. It’s what made me feel good,” said Chang, now chef and co-owner of the Boston restaurant Myers + Chang, adding that her mother “would sit there and feed it to me, and I felt loved. And it was delicious.”

Congee is the stuff of home. And like the best recipes for home cooks, it rewards improvisation. Think of congee as a blank slate: Start with a ratio of 8 cups of water to 1 cup of short-grain rice. In her 2003 cookbook, “Essentials of Asian Cuisine,” Corrine Trang counsels against rinsing the rice before cooking to retain the starch that will be essential to creating a “soft velvety texture.” Bring the rice and water to a boil, and reduce the heat to maintain a steady simmer, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, until the grains bloom and begin to shred. (Or, if you’re an Instant Pot fanatic, dump the water and rice into your cooker, select the 20-minute porridge setting and allow it to vent naturally.)

What you add next depends entirely on your mood and your proximity to a good Chinese market. Chopped pork and diced thousand-year egg are perhaps most popular. Trang suggests hard-boiling salted duck egg and serving that as a garnish, along with thousand-year egg and sliced omelet. Chang’s mother pan-fried canned tuna fish packed in oil: “It was salty and had a lot of umami. … It gets a little crunchy-crispy.”

Drizzle a bit of good soy sauce and sesame oil, and add the crunch of fresh green onion, and you’ve got a belly-warming breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Congee is an excellent foil for the concentrated flavor of dried seafood too; consider an adapted version of Maggie Zhu’s from her “Omnivore’s Cookbook.”

Or, you could get more ambitious and try a recipe Chang invented for her restaurant. She was aiming for a dim sum dish that made good use of her nirvana chicken recipe, soy-braised thighs that are easy to replicate at home. We suggest you make a big batch of the chicken on Sunday, along with the crispy shallots; save the congee for a weeknight when humble food is all you can manage.

Seafood Congee

From “Omnivore’s Cookbook” by Maggie Zhu. If you prefer a less soupy congee, cut the water back to 6 cups, then add more as needed.

1/2 cup dried scallops

1/2 cup rice

8 to 10 medium shrimp, shelled, deveined

1 teaspoon Shaoxing wine

1 teaspoon minced fresh, peeled ginger

3/8 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1/2 teaspoon sesame oil

2 tablespoons chopped green onion

Rinse dried scallops, and place them in a small bowl covered with water. Let stand, 2-3 hours.

Combine rice with 8 cups of water in a large pot. Bring to a boil over high heat. Stir occasionally. Once boiling, reduce heat to medium or medium-low. Cover pot halfway, and continue to boil gently. Cook, stirring occasionally, 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, slice shrimp lengthwise. In a small bowl, combine with wine and 1/2 teaspoon ginger and 1/8 teaspoon salt. Mix well and set aside.

Drain dried scallops, and tear by hand into small pieces. When congee has been cooking for 30 minutes and starts to thicken, add shredded scallops. Keep cooking with the pot half-covered until congee reaches desired thickness, 15-20 minutes. Stir frequently.

When congee is cooked to consistency you prefer, add shrimp and remaining ginger. Stir a few times, and turn off heat. Add remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt (or to taste). Stir well.

Serve in bowls, garnished with sesame oil and green onion. Makes 4 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 197 calories, 2 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 245 mg cholesterol, 21 g carbohydrates, 0 g sugar, 22 g protein, 417 mg sodium, 0 g fiber

Congee With Nirvana Chicken

And Scallion Salsa

From “Myers + Chang at Home” by Joanne Chang and Karen Akunowicz. Make the recipe for Nirvana Chicken ahead (recipe to the right ), then make the congee and its other components, the salsa and crispy shallots.

Scallion salsa

4 to 5 green onions, white and green parts thinly sliced (about 1/2 cup)

5 tablespoons soy sauce

1/4 cup unseasoned rice vinegar

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1 fresh Thai bird chili, sliced


1 recipe nirvana chicken (see recipe)

2 cups low-sodium chicken broth

1 cup uncooked short-grain white rice

1 recipe crispy shallots (see recipe)

For the scallion salsa, combine the green onions, soy sauce, vinegar, salt and Thai bird chili in a small bowl. Stir well and set aside.

For the congee, remove the nirvana chicken from the braising liquid and set aside. (If you made the chicken in advance, rewarm the chicken and braising liquid.) Strain the braising liquid through a fine-mesh strainer into a medium saucepan to remove solids and spoon off fat. (You’ll have about 2 1/2 cups.)

Add the broth and 4 cups water to the strained liquid, and bring it to a simmer. Add the rice, and simmer gently over low heat for 1 hour, stirring frequently, so that the rice never sticks to the bottom. The congee should be loose and soupy, so if it starts to thicken, add more water to loosen it up. (If using an Instant Pot, combine liquids and rice, and cook for 25 minutes on “porridge” setting, and allow pot to vent naturally.)

While the rice is cooking, pull the chicken meat off the bones. Optional: Crisp chicken skin in the oven (place on a baking sheet, and slide into a 350-degree oven for about 10 minutes), and chop. When the rice is almost melty and the liquid has thickened, 60 to 90 minutes, add pulled meat to pot and stir.

Divide congee among four to six bowls, top with scallion salsa, shallots and chicken skin (if using), and eat for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Nutrition information per serving (for 6 servings): 207 calories, 5 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 47 mg cholesterol, 23 g carbohydrates, 1 g sugar, 15 g protein, 2,423 mg sodium, 1 g fiber

Nirvana Chicken

1 pound bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

2 cups low-sodium chicken broth

4 to 5 green onions, white and green parts thinly sliced (about 1/2 cup)

1 piece (2 inches long) ginger, peeled, sliced into coins

3 medium cloves garlic, sliced

1/2 cups low-sodium soy sauce

1/4 cup michiu (rice cooking wine), dry sherry or dry white wine

2 teaspoons sambal oelek

2 whole star anise

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Season chicken thighs with salt and pepper.

In a large Dutch oven, heat vegetable oil over high heat until it shimmers. Sear chicken thighs, turning from time to time until deep golden brown, about 5 minutes. Remove the chicken, drain the fat in the pot and turn heat down to medium.

Add the broth to the pot, and scrape up browned bits. Add green onions, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, michiu, sambal oelek, star anise and 1/4 cup water. Bring to a simmer.

Return chicken thighs to the pot, skin side up. Cover tightly and place in the oven. Cook until chicken is falling off the bone, 60 to 90 minutes. Chicken can be made up to 3 days in advance and stored in braising liquid in the refrigerator.

Crispy Shallots

4 medium shallots

2 cups vegetable oil

1/4 teaspoon salt

Slice shallots as thin as possible. Combine with oil in a small saucepan. Place saucepan over medium heat, and stir until oil barely simmers. Cook until golden brown, stirring occasionally, 6-8 minutes. Drain shallots on paper towels, and dust with salt. Shallots keep at room temperature in an airtight container up to 5 days.