As you might have noticed from my new monthly newsletter ***why, yes, that was a shameless plug for my newsletter! It comes out once a month, and offers restaurant and travel tips, book recommendations, and more. You can sign up here*** I have fallen hook, line and sinker for hygge, the Danish concept of coziness / curmudgeonliness that has become a new American obsession (thanks in part to this article). Things that are hygge include: cable knit sweaters, thick blankets, candles, sipping hot drinks, and watching police procedurals on TV. But perhaps the most hygge of All Things Hygge is… Porridge!
It turns out Danes love love love porridge. In Copenhagen, there is an entire chain of restaurants called Grød – the name translates to “porridge” – which serves the stuff at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. When I learned about it, I was ready to hop on a plane and spend a week slurping. Happily, Grød’s concept has been replicated much closer to home at the Great Northern Food Hall, the new Danish food court in New York’s Grand Central station, where the Grain Bar dishes up porridge from dawn to dusk, from oatmeal, to øllebrød – a traditional Danish porridge made from beer-soaked rye bread that sounds… interesting? I would like to try it, anyway – to savory porridges that are actually “grainottos” – that is, grain risotto – I loved a version with farro, chicken, sautéed cabbage, and crispy chicken skin garnish.
In truth, I’ve had porridge on my mind ever since our Christmas visit to Southern California, an annual trip full of sunshine, tacos, and delicious leftovers from my parents’ groaning fridge. I’m not sure what inspired me to heat up a bowl of rice porridge for my first breakfast there, but I did, and I loved it so much that I ate it every single morning of my visit. Chinese rice porridge is what my mom believes people want to eat after a long journey. It’s what you eat when you’re under the weather. And, in many parts of China, it’s breakfast. “I used to eat it every morning with pickled vegetables and, on special holidays, a preserved duck egg,” said my mother, sharing a lovely gustatory memory. (These days she eats bran cereal.)
Rice porridge exists in many Asian cultures, with many different names. In English, it’s often called “congee,” which Wikipedia says is from a Tamil word, kañci, “a prominent food of ancient Tamil people.” Growing up, we used its Cantonese name, jook (rhymes with look), and in Mandarin it’s known as zhou, which is sort of pronounced like “joe” – make sure to sing the word as a single note; aim for F on the musical scale.
The internet is full of recipes for fancy zhou (as I will forever call it, after four years of living in Beijing), incorporating things like chicken, stock, and/or scallions. And don’t get me wrong, that kind of zhou is delicious – it’s just not what I grew up eating. The zhou of my childhood is plain, except for a few slices of ginger. And it is ridiculously easy to make – simply simmer rice with water and ginger until the grains completely disintegrate. Don’t be shy about adding more water as the mixture cooks – nearly every photo I’ve seen online features zhou that looks way too thick (in my opinion) – personally, I prefer it soupier, more like a light chowder than a rice pudding.
So, now you have a bowl of extremely bland, soupy rice and maybe you’re thinking, seriously? But, wait! This is when we add the condiments! Think of zhou as your blank canvas to adorn with pickles, sauces, herbs, vegetables. Feather a scrambled egg into the pot, if that’s your thing, stirring it into a silken mass. Add the leftover mapo doufu from Friday night’s takeout. Sprinkle over some of that pork floss stuff, which is so incredibly freaking delicious, but also possibly the leading cause of heart attacks in Asia.
Here’s what I did: The other day, needing to escape all forms of news media, I spent a few hours in New York’s Chinatown, elbowing my way through the aggressive grannies at the Chinese supermarket. With zhou already on my mind, I grabbed a bunch of cilantro, a bag of roasted peanuts, a jar of chili bamboo shoots. And I hunted down this sauce, which my dear friend, Lee – Beijing expat veteran – described as “delicious spice. You can put it in zhou and on everything. Some people live and die by it.”
The sauce is called Lao Gan Ma spicy chili crisp and though it may look like your typical chile oil, it’s actually a crunchy, spicy elixir unlike anything I’ve ever tasted. Even just opening the jar and breathing in its savory perfume makes my mouth water. There are red pepper flakes, but also tongue-tingling Sichuan peppercorns, bits of caramelized onion, fried soy beans adding crunch and texture, a hint of salt. The result is a spicy, but far from searing – it’s a reasonable heat – and also utterly addictive. If you don’t currently have a bottle in your cupboard, I suggest you sprint to the nearest Chinese grocery store and buy one.
As it turns out, zhou has lifted me from my daily breakfast rut. For a few months, I’ve been searching for a new option – tired of toast, not a fan of oatmeal, too much of a hypochondriac to eat eggs every day. But now I look forward to a bowl of zhou, freshly microwaved, with cilantro (for vitamins), peanuts (for protein), soy sauce (for seasoning), and a generous spoonful of crisp chili sauce (for my mental health). Just in time for Chinese new year – which is this coming Saturday! – congee has made mornings great again. Happy year of the rooster!
Rice porridge / congee / jook / zhou / call it what you will
This is the plainest of zhou, but also the easiest (and hardly a recipe). Serves four.
1 cup white rice (not long-grain)
3-4 slices fresh ginger
In a deep saucepan and wash the rice, rinsing until the water runs clear. Cover the rice with one inch of cold water. Add the sliced ginger. Bring the pot to a boil and lower to a simmer, cooking gently until the rice has completely disintegrated, about 30-45 minutes, adding more water if the mixture becomes too thick.
Ginger chicken rice porridge (Chowhound)
Brown rice and gai lan rice porridge (Chowhound)
Chicken congee (New York Times)
Millet zhou (Madame Huang’s Kitchen)
Seafood congee (Omnivore’s Cookbook)