A congee starter recipe ready for endless customization

A congee starter recipe ready for endless customization

Add or subtract liquid for texture, augment with grains or vegetables for flavor, and top with a variety of proteins, pickles and preserves (G Daniela Galarza/The Washington Post)

Pierced by winding rivers and dotted with ponds and lakes, the Jiangnan region in the lower Yangtze region of China is known as the home of Shanghai, the largest city in the country. But Jiangnan is just as famous for its green land and fertile waters.

“The first time I heard Jiangnan mention yu mi zhi xiang – the ‘Land of Fish and Rice’ – was when my family and I raced down a small road through Taihu, ‘Lake Tai’, with a beautiful golden rice field gently swaying with the breeze on one side,” writes Betty Liu in her wonderful cookbook, My Shanghai: recipes and stories from a city on the water

Of the many recipes in the book, nearly half contain rice in some form. There are pumpkin rice cakes with red bean paste, rice-stuffed pork ribs steamed in lotus leaves, sticky rice rolls filled with black sesame seeds and much more. But one of the simplest rice recipes is for zhÅ u or xÄ« fàn — often referred to by its Anglicized name, congee.

A simple rice dadIn its most basic iteration, it is a combination of rice and water in a ratio of about 1 part rice and anywhere from 6 to 12 parts water. The rice is boiled and simmered until the grains release all of their starch, which thickens the water as they fall apart.

Known as juk or jook in Korea, bubur in Indonesia, lugaw in the Philippines, teochew in Singapore, and dozens of other names around the world, there are also an endless variety of ways to make it. “You can make it with plain water or any stock … you can vary the flavor with herbs, dried roots, other grains, vegetables,” Liu tells me over the phone from Boston, where she is completing a surgical training. Congee can be eaten plain, but it is almost always garnished with a few savory treats before serving.

Her congee recipe is intended as a base for home cooks to play with, adding or subtracting liquid to achieve their ideal texture, topped with other grains or vegetables for flavor, and finally topping with a variety of proteins and pickled, preserved or fresh vegetables.

In her book, Liu suggests filling your congee with pickled vegetables, a millennial egg, salted duck egg, or chili-fermented tofu. But the possibilities are limitless. “When I was a kid, we each ate our bowl of congee and then a bowl of fermented bean curd. We’d take a spoonful of congee and use our chopsticks to pick some of the fermented bean curd,” says Liu. These days she loves it with a drizzle of soy sauce and pickled mustard greens or kimchi.

“But you can use whatever you want or have on hand. Leftover duck or leftover Thanksgiving turkey is always good in cooler months,” says Liu, also noting that you can rehydrate dried mushrooms, use that liquid to cook the congee, and saute the mushrooms to serve on top.

For a spring congee, she recommends sautéed or pickled green garlic or wild garlic — shredded into pesto or blown into a hot pan — fresh peas, herbs, and a squeeze of lemon juice.

In the summer, corn is ideal on congee, either plain steamed kernels or a mash of fresh corn, swirled into each bowl. Quartered cherry tomatoes and hard-boiled eggs? Baked eggplant and zucchini? Small, just-cooked shrimp? Yes, yes and yes.

“Growing up, congee was never served the same way,” says Liu. “One message I want to get across is that I think some people find Chinese food intimidating. But like any home cooking, there are no real rules for congee. It’s your kitchen, it’s your rules!”


Congee, also known as jÅëk, jook, báizhÅ u, xifan, okayu, babor and other names around the world, is the simplest rice porridge and an incredibly easy and comforting base for a variety of meals. Traditionally served for breakfast in China, remember this recipe, adapted from author Betty Liu’s My Shanghai, as a guide. Use more or less stock or water for a looser or denser porridge, add flavorings directly to the rice or stir them in after cooking. Then top the porridge with whatever you have on hand: pickled mustard greens, kimchi, or other vegetables; hard-boiled or preserved eggs; chili-marinated tofu or shrimp; green garlic pesto; baked mushrooms; poached chicken or leftover turkey. To make this recipe faster, plan ahead: Rinse the rice in cold water, drain, and freeze in a resealable bag. Once frozen, the water covering the grains will cause them to break down faster. Cook the frozen rice for just 20 minutes, instead of the hour, to get the same porridge-like texture.

Storage notes: Leftover congee can be refrigerated for up to 1 week.

Where to buy: Dried lily bulbs, dried mung beans, pickled mustard greens, millennial eggs, and chili-fermented tofu can be found in Asian markets or online.

Active time: 5 mins; Total time: 1 hour

Serves: 4


1.9 liters of water, chicken stock, mushroom stock or vegetable stock, plus more if needed

96 g short or medium grain white rice

Optional Additions

1 dried lily bulb

2 tbsp dried mung beans, soaked overnight in water

Suggested Optional Toppings

Pickled mustard vegetables or other pickles

Millennial egg or other hard-boiled egg

Chili-fermented or other tofu

Soy sauce

Spring onions


In a large saucepan over high heat, bring the water or stock to a boil. Add the rice, as well as one or both optional additions, and bring back to a boil.

Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally to prevent rice from sticking, until rice grains “bloom”, or open and begin to split, and congee has a thick, porridge-like consistency, about 45 minutes. Add more stock or water if you want a looser congee. If you want it thicker, uncover and cook longer.

Serve with toppings of your choice, stir it into the congee to flavor it, or add it to be eaten between spoonfuls of porridge.

Nutrition: Per serving (192g congee; excluding toppings) | Calories: 128; total fat: 0g; saturated fat: 0g; cholesterol: 0 mg; sodium: 2mg; carbohydrates: 28g; dietary fiber: 1g; sugars: 0g; protein: 2g.

This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not replace the advice of a dietician or nutritionist.

The Washington Post