In my first year of medical school, I had a delightful roommate who was of Vietnamese descent, born in China, and raised in her family’s restaurant in San Jose, California. Lucky for me, she was a wealth of food knowledge and was happy to share. From her, I learned about sticky rice steamed in banana leaf, hot pot, geoduck, how to efficiently dispatch a live crab in the kitchen sink, and the magic of congee.
During the winter, the body craves warming foods that provide optimal, easy to assimilate nutrition. In Chinese medicine, there is a concept called “digestive fire”, which roughly equates to your body’s ability to break down food and absorb it properly. The bigger the fire, the better you can digest. I like the metaphor of fire because it seems to parallel how our bodies generally are able to digest: in the summer when the weather is warm, we can break down much more complex foods and do better with raw fruits and vegetables. In the winter, we lack that external heat source and so we must apply heat to our foods to assist our digestive fire. Congee is the ultimate digestive assistant.
So what is congee? Well, more than a specific recipe, congee is more of a concept. The basic rule of making congee is you take a pulse (most often rice, but millet, wheat, barley, sorghum, mung beans, or other grains or legumes can be used), add a high proportion of water, and cook it for a long time over low heat. Congee is a traditional food all over Asia, India, and even Portugal, and has historically been viewed as a medicinal food in all of these cultures. Depending on taste preference, regional specialty, and the specific medicinal quality desired, other foods, herbs, and spices are added. It can be served for any meal, and depending on your preference can be served sweet or savory. Many Indian congees are served with milk and jaggery (palm sugar) but many Asian congees contain meats, pickled vegetables, ginger, eggs or crispy fried onions. (for more information, Wikipedia gives a great description of traditional congees across the world).
In my practice, I often recommend making congee as a winter food to bolster nutrition. However, it is an especially good food for people who are recovering from extended illness or have significant digestive problems. For patients who seem to “get sick no matter what I eat”, congee is a great place to start. In people who are needing the simplest, easiest nutrition possible, white rice congee is appropriate. If your digestion is rather intact, brown rice should be fine.
In his book Healing with Whole Foods Paul Pitchford talks about many foods that can be added to congee to boost its healing properties. A few of the most useful options I’ve found are: Using chicken or mutton broth instead of water is recommended for wasting illnesses and injuries, and duck or fish broth are supposed to relieve swelling. Ginger is warming to the organs and improves digestive function. Fennel and black pepper also assist in reducing gas and improve digestion. Brown rice is good for nursing mothers and general nutrition, while sweet rice is more specific for recovering from digestive illnesses.
Chicken and Ginger Congee
Use bone-in chicken for this recipe. The skin, bones, and connective tissue are rich in hyaluronic acid, chondroitin, and other building blocks of a healthy digestive tract and properly functioning immune system.
1 cup rice
2-inch piece of fresh ginger root, sliced thinly
1 chicken cut into parts
1 onion or 2 shallots, thinly sliced
6 cups water
1 tsp salt
soy sauce, sesame oil, and cilantro for serving
8-10 hours before eating, place rice, ginger, chicken, onion, and water into a large soup pot on low heat or ideally a slow cooker on low. When you come back 8-10 hours later, you should have a thick porridge. Remove chicken parts from the porridge. Remove the skin, then remove the meat from the bones and shred. Skim the top of the porridge if necessary. Ladle porridge into bowls and top with shredded chicken. Garnish with soy sauce, sesame oil, and cilantro to taste.