It is simple to cook, and easy to digest, and it can be made savory or sweet. The recipe lends itself to endless creative variations containing grains, beans, vegetables, meats, or fruits. Congee is an everyday food for millions across Asia, either as a breakfast porridge or late-night dinner. It is also reliable nourishment for the sick and frail. Yet this health food remains little-known in the West.
Some form of congee is eaten by people in China, Myanmar, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Laos, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam, as well as Turkey, Portugal, Cypress, and Greece. Have you heard of the slow cooked, watery dish of broken grains known as congee? Maybe you know it by another name?
Such a spectacular food must have a long and storied history that establishes it in the pantheon of great recipe traditions. Of course it does! With the world’s oldest recorded history, China the giant rises up to tell its congee tales.
The Historical Record
In China, the earliest record of congee dates back to some time between 2697-2597 B.C., when the deified Yellow Emperor is said to have cooked grain into congee.
Congee’s reputation for healing goes way back to Chinese medicine doctor Chun Yuyi (205-150 B.C.)
Congee’s reputation for healing goes way back to Chinese medicine doctor Chun Yuyi (205-150 B.C.) who treated the disease of the emperor of Qi (314-338) with congee.
The highly digestible gruel was officially recorded as medicine by Zhang Zhongjing before 219 in “Treatise on Cold Damage Disorders,” the first book to cover the theories, methods, formulas, and medicines known today as Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM.
Congee in Honor of the Venerable
Each year, on January 24, China celebrates the festival of Bodhi Day. It was on this day that Shakyamuni—the father of modern Buddhism—reached enlightenment while sitting under a Bodhi tree. It is said that congee was given to the malnourished Shakyamuni prior to his enlightenment. After sitting there without food and water, the congee gave him the strength to carry on.
Bodhi Day was a major commemoration in China by the mid sixth century, and became a major royal ceremony during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) under Emperor Kangxi.
Qing emperors conducted the ceremony in one of the main halls at Yonghe Temple in Beijing. The long-reigning Kangxi remodeled this temple in 1694 as a residence for his fourth son, the future Emperor Yongzheng.
A highlight of the ceremony was the massive cooking of royal congee.