A Congee Ritual

The rituals surrounding food and eating are many of my strongest memories from childhood. Growing up in a traditional Cantonese household, food and rituals were inextricably linked. Most days, our daily dinners began with the ritual of a medicinal soup before the main meal.

During traditional celebrations like Chinese New Year, we would enjoy big bowls of vegetarian Buddha’s Delight (Jai) and pungent fermented soybean slathered on white rice. For birthday celebrations, there was always a plate of lucky noodles (long noodles for long life). During Ching Ming Festival, where Chinese pay respect to deceased ancestors, food, tea and wine were offered to the dead at their gravestones.

Congee (Jook) on a hot day is one of my favourite childhood food rituals. During the warmest days, my mother would make a huge pot of congee, flavoured with shiitake mushroom stalks, ginger, dried dates, lotus seeds, pork bone, and peanuts. The ritual of hot congee during hot weather may seem slightly odd, but the reason is similar to why people who live in the hottest climates eat spicy food – the idea is that by eating warming food, it will raise your internal temperature to match the temperature outside, hence increasing your blood circulation, causing you to sweat, and once your sweat has evaporated, you cool down! Personally, I’ve never really noticed any cooling off thanks to a bowl of hot congee, but the ritual remains a very special food memory.

Congee is traditionally flavoured with meat or seafood. My version has been given a little ‘Arthur Street Kitchen treatment’, featuring brown rice, quinoa and a punchy little ginger relish. The other ingredients of black eyed peas, peanuts, shiitake mushrooms and star anise are influences from my mother.

Brown Rice and Quinoa Congee with Shiitake and Ginger

Traditionally, Chinese add anything from sesame, coriander sprigs, peanuts and yaw char gwai (a Chinese doughnut-like bread fried in oil) to their congee, but my childhood favourite was chopped shallots and swig of Maggi seasoning which gave an indistinguishable, delicious umami taste. For this recipe, I’ve created an aromatic ginger, shallot and sesame relish which will give your congee a real kick.

Serves 4

  • ½ cup brown rice
  • ½ quinoa (white, black, red or combination of all three)
  • 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • 40g dried shiitake mushroom, soaked in hot water for 30 minutes
  • 20g ginger, unpeeled and sliced
  • 2 small cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
  • 50g blanched raw peanuts
  • 80g black eyed peas
  • 1 star anise
  • About 8 cups hot tap water
  • Coriander sprigs, to serve

Ginger, Shallot and Sesame Relish

  • 40g ginger, peeled and finely chopped
  • 3 Chinese shallots (scallions), finely chopped
  • ½ green chilli, finely chopped (remove seeds if you don’t want the heat!)
  • ½ tsp sea salt
  • 1 tsp soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp sesame seeds
  • 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp sesame oil

This congee will take 1.5 to 2 hours to cook, simmering away gently on your stovetop.

Begin by combining the brown rice and quinoa in a medium saucepan and rinse well in water – do this until the water runs clear. I like to get in there and scrunch the grains with my fingers – this removes the starch from the rice and also the bitterness from the quinoa. Pour off the water.

Drain the mushrooms, and thinly slice.

Add the oil and salt to the rice and quinoa and combine well. Pour over about 8 cups of water, cover with lid and bring to a gentle boil. Then add the shiitake mushrooms, sliced ginger, garlic cloves, peanuts, black eyed peas and star anise. Turn the heat down to a very low simmer, cover with lid and allow to cook gently for 90 minutes to 2 hours. Every 10 minutes or so, give the congee a stir. You may have to remove the lid every now and then to allow the steam to escape. A good way of doing this is to lay one chopstick on each side of the saucepan, then rest the lid on top of the chopsticks, leaving a gap for steam to escape. Add more hot water if it seems too thick.

While the congee is cooking, make the ginger relish by combining all the ingredients in a bowl. Stir together.

Your congee is ready once it is thick and creamy, similar to the texture of porridge. Remove the garlic cloves and, if you like, the ginger slices (I like to leave mine in as I love cooked ginger!). Taste and add sea salt and white pepper to your liking. Ladle into individual serving bowls and spoon over some of the ginger, shallot and sesame relish and add coriander sprigs.

Recipe © Hetty McKinnon