• Linda Gao enjoying congee with her family. (Linda Gao)Source: Linda Gao
It's a dish that's 3,000 years old and its warm grains helped connect Linda Gao to her family during an intense overseas blizzard.
By
Linda Gao

23 Nov 2020 - 3:48 PM  UPDATED 30 Nov 2020 - 10:57 AM

The first time I made congee, I was 27 and living in London on microwavable packets of rice.

Since moving from Sydney, I’d deliberately swapped the Chinese dishes I’d been raised on for beef roasts and black lentil dals. The one time I’d yielded, my hard-earned pounds had secured a head of bok choy, some pork dumplings and a handful of fried tofu that disintegrated on the journey to my flat. Traumatised, I swore off Chinese food in my adopted home, unless I’d made it myself. No small feat for someone who didn’t even know how to make congee.

Congee’s place in Asian cuisine is as essential as its history is long. It has been consumed for some 3,000 years, appearing in South and East Asian texts since the Chinese Zhou dynasty. The name itself is rooted in the Tamil word 'kanjī' (meaning 'boilings'), becoming 'canje' via 16th-century Portuguese colonisers in Goa, before finally being anglicised into 'congee'.

Congee’s place in Asian cuisine is as essential as its history is long. It

No matter its name, congee is a staple across Asia. The typically rice-based porridge is a popular breakfast dish, but can also shapeshift into a side or dessert. Filipino lugaw is rice-based but vacillates between sweet or savoury, with additions as varied as cocoa powder and offal. Meanwhile, the remedial herbs in Sri Lankan kola kanda and Indian karkidaka kanji transform the dish into traditional medicine.

In my family, congee was the Chinese, rice-based zhou. Mum served it the traditional Shanghainese way: in steaming bowls for breakfast, with cold sides like pickled mustard greens and a salted duck egg. But the version I remembered best was pi dan zhou: brewed with pork mince, spring onion and century egg. Together they produced a curiously balanced creaminess – worlds away from tuckshop sausage sizzles and Paddle Pops – that stayed with me long after I’d left home.

Congee’s place in Asian cuisine is as essential as its history is long. It has been consumed for some 3,000 years, appearing in South and East Asian texts since the Chinese Zhou dynasty.

I absconded to London after university. In this city with multicultural DNA, my new friends and colleagues were overwhelmingly white. Now, the only people I saw who looked like me staffed the pan-Asian supermarkets I never entered. Trips to Chinatown were solely as shortcuts to hipper eateries nearby – none of which were Chinese. And eventually, those visits dwindled away too, as long office hours saw me swap degustations for canned tuna.

During my second winter, London was rocked by a Siberian snowstorm dubbed ‘The Beast from the East’. Sub-zero blizzards roared through the city, halting traffic and rattling our flimsy flat windows. It was then that pi dan zhou returned to me in a craving as strong and sudden as the arctic winds howling outside. Dressed like the Michelin Man, I slipped and staggered to my closest pan-Asian shop.

When I returned, eyelashes clumped with snowflakes, I moved without pause. Triple-washed jasmine rice was simmered in water, along with pork mince and thickly diced century eggs. Slivered spring onions were stirred in right at the end, when the pork had browned and the mixture had assumed a jammy thickness.

"The first time I made congee, I was 27 and living in London on microwavable packets of rice."

It had taken no longer than an hour. But as I took my first tentative bite, my senses came back to life. The intoxicating sweetness of stewed rice, veiled under a delicate slick of pork fat. Pops of umami from kernels of mince. A creamy ammonia, oozing from fat chunks of century egg. All balanced by the spring onion: a sprightly voice that rose high and clear to cut through the chorus of deeper flavours.

My congee was not a perfect replica of my mum’s, but it felt just as intimate and familiar. I was six and dragging spicy bamboo shoots through my zhou, until they were mild enough to eat. I was 14 and battling my sister for the last crisp youtiao (Chinese doughnut) to dunk into our pi dan zhou. I was 27 and realising, in a Siberian snowstorm, that no matter how far I ran, congee was as big a part of me as sausage sizzles and black lentil dals.

In Sydney, I had always existed at the crossroads of being Chinese or Australian. I never felt like I could fully walk either path, but I was constantly trying to. I could speak Shanghainese, but not Mandarin. I was raised on Round the Twist and Neighbours, but white students would avert their eyes when forming university assignment groups, unless I’d already proven I could speak English. I’d thought in asking London to swallow me whole, I could finally escape the politics that defined my identity and build something of my own. As it turns out, roots are inescapable. I had never made congee before, but the muscle memory was with me long before I’d stepped on a flight to Heathrow.

Congee is shared around the family table – and conjures up many family memories.

When my bowl was empty, I sat a little further back in my chair. The heady perfume of jasmine rice had drenched my kitchen. I closed my eyes and breathed in. Then, I served myself another bowl.

It’s been two years now since my maiden voyage into congee. These days, I rarely make pi dan zhou. But when I do – when I am ill or gripped by cravings so sharp they must be met now, now, now – it feels like meeting an old friend. One who has quietly stood by you your whole life and will, without recompense, embrace you as familiarly as the day you last met. 

 

This piece was originally submitted for New Voices On Food, a project dedicated to promoting diverse voices on food.

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