Flavors and Ingredients : Regional and Traditional Method (part 2) - Rice, Wheat, Grains ≅ Congee, Cream of Wheat, Porridge

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1. Rice, Wheat, Grains ≅ Congee, Cream of Wheat, Porridge

A billion people eat congee daily, but you’re unlikely to find it on many restaurant menus in the United States, for the same reason that “porridge” and “gruel” don’t appear very often: it’s a dish meant to stretch the filling power of a few cheap ingredients as much as possible. (Think Oliver Twist: “Please, sir, I want some more.”) That doesn’t mean it can’t be delicious and nutritious; it just means that unless your cultural background includes it, you might not know it. For some, it’s the equivalent of chicken noodle soup: something nourishing to turn to when sick or looking for comfort.

Since everybody has to eat, every culture has something like congee based on the staple crop that grows regionally. Different regions of the world support growing different crops: wheat in the United States, grains such as oats in Europe, and rice in much of Asia. Wheat becomes cream of wheat, oats become porridge, and rice becomes congee.

Congee can be “subclassed” into several different versions, depending upon the culture. The Chinese call it zhou (runny rice porridge with eggs, fish paste, tofu, and soy sauce); in India, it’s called ganji (rice “soup” that has flavorings such as coconut milk, curry, ginger, and cumin seeds added to it). When cooked in sweet milk with cardamom and topped with pistachio or almonds, you have the dessert version.

If you want a further challenge, try fusion cooking: blending the ingredients and flavors of two regions together. Why not try porridge with traditional congee toppings, or congee with porridge toppings? Or, pick two random locations (the tried-and-true semi-random method: dartboard and map of the world; if you hit water, go for fish), and create a meal blending the flavors from the different cultures, or using one culture’s ingredients with another culture’s techniques. Italian and Mexican? Try taco pizza: pizza with cheese, tomatoes, salsa, beans, and cilantro on top. Vietnamese and Classic American? How about a Vietnamese hamburger, seasoning the meat with fish sauce, lemongrass, and red pepper flakes, and adding cucumber and bean sprouts to the bun? Japanese and Classic European? Go for miso ice cream; it’s salty and sweet, and delicious!

Fusion cooking often results from the mixing of two cultures via immigration. There are plenty of fusion-like dishes that have come out of cultures situated where two different regions meet or two different cultures mingle: Mediterranean (North African + Southern European), Southeast Asian (Asian + European colonialism), and Caribbean (African + Western European), for example. Israeli markets carry ingredients from the surrounding western regions of North Africa (especially Moroccan) and Eastern Europe; their cuisine is influenced by the traditions of both areas. Modern Vietnamese food was heavily impacted by French occupation in the 19th century. The United States is perhaps the most diverse example of fusion cooking; with so many different cultures mingling, you might not even think of using the term “fusion” to describe our cuisine, but it is. Just think of African-influenced Southern cooking, the French and African backgrounds in Cajun food, and the impact of Mexican cuisine on Tex-Mex.

Rice Congee

Cook for at least several hours in a slow cooker, or in a pot set over a very low flame:

4 cups (1kg) water or stock

½ cup (100g) rice, unwashed (so that the starches remain in the congee)

½ teaspoon (3g) salt

When you’re ready to eat, heat the rice to near boiling to finish cooking. The long, low-heat cooking will have broken down the starches; boiling the liquid will cause them to gelatinize and quickly thicken. I have a rice cooker that has a slow-cook mode, so I switch it from slow-cook mode to rice mode, which is hotter and will take the rice up to near boiling. If you are doing this in a pot on the stovetop, set the pot over medium heat, periodically stirring and checking it while working on the rest of these instructions so that it does not burn on the bottom.

While the rice is cooking, prepare a number of toppings. I enjoy:

Tofu, cut into small cubes and browned on all sides

Scallions, chopped into small pieces

Garlic, sliced into thin discs and toasted on each side to make “garlic chips”

Sriracha sauce

Soy sauce

Toasted almond slices

You can serve this family-style, with the toppings in small bowls where your guests can help themselves (or not, in the case of sriracha sauce), or you can portion the toppings out more formally: a tablespoon or two of tofu, a few teaspoons of scallions, a sprinkling of garlic chips, and a dash of sriracha and soy sauces. Quantity is not particularly important, except for the hot and salty sauces.


  • This isn’t a fancy or precise dish, and there’s no right or wrong set of toppings or quantities. (Millions of cooks can’t be getting this wrong.) A simple rice congee is a great place to try different combinations of ingredients!

  • To toast the garlic, use a sharp knife to slice a few cloves (or more, if you’re a garlicphile) into thin discs. Place a frying pan on a burner set to medium-high heat, but do not add oil. Arrange the garlic wafers in a single, thin layer. Toast one side until medium brown, about two to three minutes, and then flip (try using tongs) to toast the second side.

  • Try cracking an egg into the congee at the end of cooking, either in the pot (and then mix it in), or in the individual bowls (you might need to pop the congee into the microwave for a minute if it isn’t hot enough to fully cook the egg). Adding an egg will alter the texture and give the dish a much richer taste.

  • Try substituting other salty ingredients for the soy sauce and hot ingredients for the sriracha sauce, using the flavor-by-culture table presented earlier.

One of the keys to a successful blend of two culinary traditions is to choose recipes for which the ingredients are readily available. Indian cuisine has translated extremely well to the United States, in large part because the ingredients commonly used either are already present here (onions, lentils, peppers) or ship and store well (cumin, paprika, curry powders). Much Egyptian food, on the other hand, relies on goat meat, which is extremely uncommon in the American grocery store. One great way to find inspiration is to visit local ethnic markets and stores. They tend to be small storefronts with “weird” smells from the different produce and spices, and are typically located in obscure neighborhoods, so ask around to discover where they’re hidden.

Tomato Basil Mozzarella Salad

Tomato, basil, and mozzarella are a classic Italian combination, and a good example of “what grows together goes together.” This recipe is all about the freshness of the ingredients, so you’ll need to wait until the height of summer for the ingredients to be in season.

Toss in a bowl and serve:

1 cup (180g) sliced tomatoes, about 2 medium ones

1 cup (15g) fresh basil leaves, from about 3 or 4 stems

½ cup (100g) mozzarella

1 tablespoon (15g) olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste


  • The ratio of basil to cheese to tomato is really up to you. Hold back some of each ingredient, take a look at the resulting salad, and toss in more of whatever you think will make it better. The only thing to be careful with is the salt; once there’s too much in there, it’s hard to fix. How to slice the tomatoes and cheese is also up to you. Try thick slices of tomato and cheese, alternating in layers on the plate and served with a fork and knife. Or, slice the tomato and cheese into bite-sized pieces to be served with just a fork.

  • Try making this twice, once with conventional tomatoes and a second time with heirloom tomatoes, to see the difference made by the quality of ingredients.

Xeni Jardin on Local Food

Xeni Jardin is a coeditor of Boing Boing 

Could you tell me a little bit about yourself and food?

I’ve been fascinated with cooking as long as I’ve been fascinated with creating and exploring technology, if not longer. To me, the two worlds aren’t mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they feed each other. Just recently, one of our coeditors on the blog, Lisa Katayama, was in Nepal, and over the weekend she posted a single sentence: “I could eat dal bhat every day of my life.” Dal bhat is basically rice and stewed lentils. It’s what you eat at almost every meal in Nepal. I traveled to the region myself. I was remembering how good the simple food of that Himalayan country was. So I said, “You know what? I’m going to make some dal bhat right here in Los Angeles.” I had some split yellow peas in the cupboard and dug out some different spices. I didn’t know exactly how to make it so I started Googling. I do this a lot. I’ll spend half an hour poking around at different recipes. I end up kind of improvising something in the end usually based on my own cooking experience and different little bits of the recipes I find.

What is it like exploring food both through the Internet and through traveling and seeing the traditional ways food is prepared in other countries?

I was in a Mayan village with some people that I work with, a nonprofit. It was Christmas, and in Guatemala, tamales and Christmas go together. In this particular village, the women have a particular way that they prepare the Christmas tamales. They use locally grown white corn. I followed them around and took notes and, with their permission, filmed the preparation and watched every step. This woman was toasting sesame seeds over a wood fire, and then grinding them in a stone grinder. Another was making the spicy sauce. Other women in another part of the room boiled prepared corn into a mash.

This particular preparation was kind of runny and soft and white, a lot like the grits that I grew up with in the South. I sat in the middle of this assembly line of women all wearing their brightly colored woven blouses as they glopped a big dollop of that soft white corn into big green leaves from the corn plant. Then they added a little bit of meat and sauce, and then they tied them all up and steamed them.

A few days later we drove back into Guatemala City, where we stayed with a nonindigenous family. The house was just packed to the gills with tamales that were purchased from local vendors. When a guy is on the street walking around with a bag of tamales, the answer is always yes. They have a million different kinds of tamales that are prepared for Christmas in that country alone. I remember sitting at some Christmas celebrations there, too. We’re sitting there at the table and there’s sheets of all these different kinds of tamales. One of the Guatemalan people at the table said, “What the hell is in this? Cherries?” That’s the kind of sweet and savory Guatemalan tamale you can get for Christmas.

I can’t get enough of that in the same way that I frequently fall down these Internet search rabbit holes when I’m just chilling out thinking about what kind of yummy, healthy food I’m going to prepare for my family and friends. I love exploring food in traditional cultures as a part of the reporting that I do, and I love exploring food back here. It’s a fairly important part of my life.

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