Congee: The Ultimate Comfort Food

bowl of congee

I didn’t grow up eating congee, the ultimate comfort food, but since learning about it in Chinese medicine school, I have grown to adore it.

Since many Americans aren’t familiar with the wonders of congee, or rice porridge, I thought it would be helpful to give you my recipe, plus a few good reasons to add this ultimate comfort food to your diet.

What is Congee?

Congee, or jook, as it is sometimes known, is a slow-cooked porridge made from rice or millet and water or broth.

There are as many ways to prepare congee as there are people who eat it. A number of East Asian cultures, including China, Korea, and Japan, have variations on congee. This easy-to-digest soup is usually fed to the very young, the very old, and people who are ill.

But you don’t need to be sick to eat congee! In fact, congee is a nutritious addition to most anyone’s diet, especially people with low energy, stomach ailments, loose stools, or low appetite. (For more tips on diet, see 10 Ways to Improve Your Digestion with Chinese Medicine.) When made with brown rice or millet, rather than white rice, it provides steady energy over many hours, especially if served with some form of protein.

I personally eat congee because it is easy on my stomach, provides consistent energy, and marries well with vegetables, eggs, and chicken.

During the cold months of the year, I alternate congee with oatmeal for my morning meal. A warm bowl of silky-soft grains is the perfect stick-to-your-ribs breakfast on a snowy morning. What’s better, it can be made in advance and paired with a few basics from the pantry and refrigerator.

So how can one simple food provide enough versatility to be eaten every day?  

How to Make Congee, the Ultimate Comfort Food

Chinese versions of congee are usually made with white rice. While white rice is definitely easy to digest, I opt for brown rice instead. Brown rice is lower on the glycemic index than white rice, which means it turns into sugar much slower in your system. Rather than spiking your blood sugar, brown rice congee provides slow, steady energy over a longer period of time.

Brown rice congee also has more fiber, which aids in both firming loose stools, through adding bulk to the stool, and moistening the digestive tract in cases of constipation. Congee’s high liquid to grain ratio is the perfect combination of solid food and nourishing broth. It satiates our desire for both calories and water, leading to a lasting sense of being full.

I make my congee with a combination of chicken bone broth (either store-bought or homemade, depending on how much time I have) and water. Some congee broths are made with pork or beef, while other cooks favor water alone. The real key to an excellent congee is slow-cooking the grains until they fall apart, creating a silky, shiny, thick porridge that holds up to the addition of proteins, vegetables, and condiments.

The backbone of congee is the luxuriously soft grain: easy to digest, deeply satisfying, and highly versatile.

Congee Mix-and-Match

Congee is a savory food that pairs well with vegetables, tamari, sesame oil, and eggs. It is also delicious mixed with chicken or pork, though vegetarian versions are just as exciting. Once you’ve mastered the broth and the grain, anything goes.

Leftovers are also great in congee. (Think cooked vegetables or last night’s protein.) I’ve even been known to throw leftover congee into other foods, such as chicken soup, as a thickener. (Use caution though. This can go wrong. The worst idea I ever had for combining leftovers: chili and congee. Don’t do it!)

My recipe for congee is just a launching pad for your own creations. Have fun discovering a new food requiring little more than a bit of time and a lot of curiosity.

Brown Rice Congee

1 cup brown rice (short grain, long grain, or basmati)

4 cups bone broth (optional; if making vegetarian version, use 8 cups of water rather than 4)

4 cups water

2 Tbsp. Better Than Bouillon chicken bouillon (optional)

2 cloves garlic, grated (optional)

1 inch of ginger, grated (optional)

Combine rice, broth, water, and bouillon in a slow cooker. Cook on low overnight, approximately 8-10 hours. I do not add salt to the congee at this stage, as I may add additional bouillon when I reheat it, or I may use tamari, both of which are quite salty.

If you do not have a slow cooker, bring rice and liquid to a boil, adding bouillon once it has reached boiling. Turn the heat down to a very low simmer, placing a lid on the pot. Stir the grains every 15 minutes to prevent sticking to the bottom of the pan. Cook for 2.5 hours or until grains are broken and soft and the congee is silky and somewhat pearly in color.

Once the congee is cooked, you will have quite a bit to eat over several days. To reheat congee, simply mix some of the porridge, which will be thick, with water or additional bone broth and/or bouillon until it reaches the consistency of soup. You can also add in cooked meat, such as shredded chicken, while the soup is reheating.

To up the nutritional content, throw a handful of baby kale into the congee once it’s hot (the greens will soften in the warmth of the congee without becoming soggy and overcooked).

Top the congee with sesame seeds, a few drops of sesame oil, and a splash of tamari for added depth. And for truly yummy and amazing flavor, add one soft-boiled, or “jammy,” egg to the congee once it’s cooked.

To cook a “jammy” egg, bring an inch of water to a full boil, gently place one egg in the boiling water, cover with a lid, and allow it to cook for 8-9 minutes. Remove the egg, run it under cold water, peel, and serve right away.

Now that you’ve got the basics for congee, the ultimate comfort food, be sure to email me your favorite variations. As I said, there are as many ways to cook congee as there are cooks. Incorporating this nutritious dish into your diet is as easy as throwing water and rice in a slow cooker. The real art is in finding the additional goodies that make you want to eat it again and again.

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