Shea Robinson is managing partner and chef at Miijidaa Cafe…
Congee | Crystal Palace
10 King Street South
Waterloo, ON N2J 1N9
I’ve been eating congees recently, exploring the different textures and mild flavours of this less familiar rice dish popular in many regions of Asia. The steaming hot bowl, a comfort food if there ever was one, might be studded with chicken, beef, fish and a few vegetables–and very often preserved egg, an ingredient strange to the western palate.
In terms of consistency, so far Crystal Palace in downtown Waterloo, a favourite for the more recognizable dim sum, is my favourite.
Congee is in many ways the equivalent of a chicken noodle soup that, aside from being delicious, can soothe a cold or upset stomach.
And when you eat congee, you’re consuming a huge bite of history: the word comes from the Tamil language, the dish having a thread of its origin in Sri Lanka and India. There are recorded accounts of early versions of the dish having been prepared in China a thousand years before the Christian era.
Variations of the dish are made in Korea, Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam and many other countries. Interestingly, through their history as early explorers, Portugal has a version called canja, which likely came to the country through its colonies in India.
Some refer to congee as rice porridge, and that’s fair enough; others might call it a watery gruel, which does have some culinary accuracy.
Regardless though, Congee is a blank slate: a relatively bland concoction, it absorbs the flavours of what is added to it. Often made with the unlikely proportion of one part rice to ten parts water, congee was a way to stretch out food when the larder was getting bare—and larder leftovers contributed to the taste and nutrition.
First and foremost, however, congee must remain a rice dish and not a meat or fish or vegetable stew to which rice has been added, though it can have a variety of toppings and added ingredients.
Often a breakfast food, congee is also eaten with dim sum offerings, according to staff at Crystal Palace. It’s difficult to find on the menu, so ask for it by name. Their congee is thick and creamy and delicious with shards of pork. It’s a great and simple meal on its own—$4.95 for a medium-sized bowl—or a shared appetizer before tucking into spicier dishes.
At Jia Jia Lok on King Street near University Avenue, the congee is thinner with pieces of chicken and long slices of peppery ginger which give it a spice heat alongside egg pieces.
That preserved egg is traditional, giving the congee a heady, almost mushroom-like flavour. Cured for weeks or longer, the egg is deep grey or very dark brown. Also known as a “century egg,” it’s made by curing an egg in an alkaline solution. The yolk becomes jelly-like, again making it less familiar to North American diners.
So, unlike pho, banh mi sandwiches, pad Thai and a host of other dishes, congee just hasn’t caught on with North American eaters, but it has with me. I encourage you to try it.