How do you like your congee?
Having eaten this traditional dish for decades, I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to learn to cook savoury ‘rice porridge’ aka congee or okaya. In the midst of lockdown I discovered this bowl of comfort is incredibly easy to make.
Chinese or Japanese-style rice porridge
Sometimes the simplest recipes are the tastiest. With time on my hands I unnecessarily complicated things by falling into the black hole of Google trying to find the definitive congee recipe. But even searching the best rice to use lead to total confusion.
You’d think it’d make sense to use short grain white rice for a starchy, savoury porridge. However, according to hundreds of recipes online, you can use almost any kind. Long, short, Jasmine, Basmati, Japanese. You name it, someone will swear by it.
Having been on a Japanese rice bowl kick during lockdown (hands up who panic bought 2 kg of sushi rice), this seemed the obvious one to experiment with.
So I began with okaya aka Japanese congee. Cooked in a ratio of 1 part rice to at least 5 parts liquid, traditionally it’s made with dashi (a stock made from bonito or kelp). I used a tetra pack of fish stock lurking at the back of the pantry for the first attempt and a couple of trusty Marigold vegetarian bouillon cubes second time round. Both were delicious.
All Japanese rice recipes begin with a ritual of soaking the rice for 30 minutes, followed by repeatedly draining and rinsing until the water becomes clear. I think this is to stop the rice sticking together but after cooking numerous batches of okaya, some soaked and rinsed and others not, I couldn’t discern much of a difference.
If making congee or okaya on a stove top, rather than ‘set and forget’ in a slow cooker or Instapot, choose your heaviest, large pot. Add your rinsed rice and stock. Okaya ratios range from 5 – 20 parts stock to rice. This may depend on the variety of ‘Japanese’ rice used and your preferred consistency (more about that later).
Bring the pot to a simmer, cover with a lid and turn down the heat to low. I like to add some thinly sliced root ginger while cooking. The first time you cook using a new brand of rice I suggest stirring every 10 to 15 minutes to begin with to make sure you have enough stock. My rice needed about 7 parts stock to make a loose risotto consistency and 10 to make a soupier version. However, longer grain rice usually needs less stock
Cook for about 90 minutes on low until you have your desired consistency. Stir every so often to make sure it doesn’t dry out, adding more stock as needed.
Everything I’ve read about okaya, like congee, has a huge variation in consistency. Some people prefer a sloppy risotto consistency, while others insist it should be soupy.
The Chinese restaurant congee I order tends to be on the soupy side, while okaya is more solid. I suspect it’s like scrambled eggs, loose or dry depends on what your mum or dad made.
I actually like it both ways. The wet risotto style can make a satisfying one dish meal. For example, when subbing okaya for steamed rice and served with Japanese inspired toppings Or loose and soupy with just a dash of soy sauce and/or toasted sesame oil, as a medicinal comfort food when feeling under the weather.
If Lockdown 1.0 was a dish mine would be a bowl of steamed rice or okaya, topped with the following goodies: Japanese pickled daikon and ginger, bonito flakes soused in tamari or a little omelette with beaten eggs, mirin and tamari. Plus a sprinkle of furikake and toasted nori.
For a vegan Chinese-inspired congee I braised shitake mushrooms, spring onions, ginger and silken tofu in soy and the soaking water from the dried mushrooms.
In restaurants soupy congee is often served with some protein (such as poached chicken or fish), sesame oil and a few slices of the green tops of spring onions. A good way to repurpose leftovers or tempt a convalescent palate.
How do you like your savoury rice porridge?