Phena Bhat vs Congee

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The Burmese Congee

Chicken noodle soup may be many Americans’ go-to staple when it comes to healing the body and soul. But when I’m down and out, nothing beats a big, steaming bowl of my mother’s velvety rice porridge with chicken…the Indonesian velvety bubur ayam.

As children, we were fed this magic potion mum would make, her special concoction of chicken bones, water, a mix of broken rice simmered and stirred on the stove for hours. Mum’s rice porridge was also given an edge with chicken bouillon (and what was probably MSG). Sometimes, she’d break a raw egg into the hot bowl and let the residual heat cook it into feathery strands, then always topped with it vegetables, fried shallots, green onions, and maybe a drizzle of sweet soy sauce.

Can you blame us for feigning illness to eat more?

In fact, all across Asia and the diaspora, congee is prepared in myriad ways and eaten at all times of the day—all versions tasty, all versions comforting. This is South East Asia’s unique comfort food.

This isn’t surprising, considering rice is a staple food in many Asian cultures and communities. Sometimes sweet, mostly savoury, congee can be made with day-old rice—just one more way to reduce waste and use up leftovers.

For countries with long histories of famine, natural disasters, and war, this staple meal has always been a frugal way to stretch meagre portions of rice and feed a crowd.

 

The texture of the Congee should be like this
The texture of the Congee should be like this

Congee, or jook, probably originated in China. Cookbook author Eileen Yin-Fei Lo maintains that congee dates back to approximately 1000 B.C. during the Zhou dynasty. In the south, the jook was (and is still) made with rice.

Strangely enough, the word derives from the Tamil kanji. It refers to both the porridge and the water in which the rice has been cooked.

Today, names for congee are as varied as the style of preparation. Regardless of what it’s called, the dish is easy to prepare and satisfying all year-round. There is no limit to congee’s permutations. Depending on whom you ask, it might contain chicken, fish, eggs, vegetables, herbs, spices, grains, condiments, and/or all of the above, even the Burmese Balachaung (crispy fried shrimp relish) as toppings.

Similar to plain steamed rice, congee acts as the blank canvas for a selection of side dishes. The Japanese have okayu, usually paired with umeboshi (pickled plum), salmon, and nori. In Taiwan, congee studded with sweet potato is relished with other dishes in lieu of rice.

Thai khao tom is a soupy congee: one-third rice and two-thirds water. They make khao tom with ground pork, spinach, shrimp, and loads of garlic and ginger.

In the Indian food tradition, kanji is typically made with rice. There are several dishes like (kanji) found across regions of India that have a similar concept—locally available grain cooked down with lots of water, prepared with a pinch of salt and minimal other seasonings. A Bengali version, jaau bhat, as it’s called in Bangladesh. I think jaau actually is barley. Phena Bhat in West Bengal is made with rough (dheki  chata chaal) rice brightened with spices like turmeric and ginger and finished off with mustard oil.

I personally prefer the congee made with Gobindobhog rice. With a simple topping of ghee, salt, mashed potato and a green chili — every morsel is up for zest. I love putting in long-cut brinjals and orange-hued sweet pumpkins to make it colourful.

Juk refers to any Korean porridge made with rice and/or other grains or legumes, such as barley, beans, sesame seeds, and nuts. One variation, hobakjuk, even stars pumpkin, with sweet rice flour in place of the usual rice.

In Burma, the same gruel is called Hsan Pyoke, literally meaning boiled rice. Every city, town, no matter how big or small, there is this concept of setting up night markets between 4 pm and 1 am every evening. They sell a variety of noodles, soup, salads, fritters, steamed sticky rice in bamboos, plantain leaf wrapped pork or fish steamed, and of course the congees, with a plethora of toppings both vegetarian and non-vegetarian. In my restaurant here in Kolkata, I serve congee rice with chicken, pork, egg and chilli oil toppings with spring onion, chopped tomatoes, chopped cabbages, fried garlic and fried crispy onion and Balachaung. My customers love it. 

Simple ingredients enhance a congee's taste
Simple ingredients enhance a congee's taste

Very recently, a few guests from Myanmar dropped in unannounced to taste my Burmese food during the lunch hour. Unfortunately, it was a Thursday, our weekly holiday, a luxury for me and I was pottering around my kitchen thinking about fixing lunch, what to cook only for myself as the other family members were not at home. I felt too lazy to cook elaborate fancy meal only for myself and decided to make the simple congee with boiled potatoes, two boiled eggs, pieces of pumpkin, four little pieces of chicken, roughly torn mustard greens and two strings of Chinese sausages which I stored very carefully in the fridge. That’s it. As I was getting ready to eat, the door-bell rang. The visitors addressed me in Burmese and naturally I invited them home. After chatting for an hour with them showing no signs of leaving, my tummy rumbled. I excused myself and asked our driver to get four Biriyani packets and chicken chaap for my guests. The dining table looked wonderful; the Biriyani aroma was tempting. I asked them to join me for lunch. Along with this Mughlai fare, I also kept my congee pot, a bowl of shrimp Balachaung, fried onion and chilli-garlic oil. Much to my surprise, my guests filled their plates with congee and butter, and the Biriyani, chaap remained untouched! The moment they set their eyes on the steaming pot of gruel they exclaimed “Hsan- Pyoke !” Such is the power of simple congee and ignoring the plates of Biriyani and chaap they, like Oliver Twist, extended their bowls asking for more!

Given below is my recipe of congee.

Rinse and soak the rice in water for 30 minutes; then drain the water.

In a large pot, bring the rice and eight cups of water or stock to a boil.

When the rice is boiling, turn the heat down to medium-low. Place the lid on the pot. Cook on medium-low to low heat, stirring occasionally, until the rice has the thick, creamy texture of porridge. This can take about 1 and 1/2 to 1 and 3/4 hours. Add the salt as per your taste and add any seasonings or toppings as desired, such as crushed peanuts, fried shallots, chopped cilantro, pickles, fried sausage, bacon bits, whatever you fancy. Serve piping hot with dollops of butter! Viola! You have a super meal on the table.

Minced garlic, (optional)

Lotus root, (optional)

Gingko nuts, (optional)

Shredded chicken, (optional)

Shredded pork, (optional)

Shredded bok choy, (optional)

Soft-boiled egg, (optional)

Chopped peanuts, (optional)

There are no rules on what you can add to congee. Typically, people add meat, fish, vegetables, and herbs: Add cooked shredded chicken, ground pork, or fried, steamed sausages or a soft boiled egg with runny yolk.

Cooked mushrooms, mustard greens or Bok Choy, Chinese cabbage, and bamboo shoots make a nice addition.

Add crunch with crushed peanuts or brightness with fresh cilantro or Thai basil.

This goes to prove that whether you grew up in Vietnam or Myanmar or India we are bonded through rice and water!

All images by the author.

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