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Food that Built Empires: Rice Congee

A few dishes have puzzled food writers than this ancient gruel that has laid the foundations of great Empires but still eludes the glory of modern-day fine dining.

By Madhulika Dash; Photographs courtesy - A Foodies’ Diary, CulinaryXpress & Stock Images

Circa November 2019: The final dinner service of a week-long farm-to-table theme retreat had just come to an end. An excited team though bone tired went quietly to work cleaning the kitchen, while on the other end came the wafting aroma of one of the most amazing dishes. At the burner was culinary revivalist and award-winning Chef Sabyasachi Gorai (founder, Fabrica By Saby) labouring on a pot of gruel. "It’s barley", the culinary historian, said with a glee as he with clockwork precision poured in the meat stock on to the caldron while deftly placing marinated meat pieces onto the grill.

Minutes later, bowls were out as ladles of hot warm porridge was poured on to it topped with two pieces of grilled meat and greens that were stir fried in garlic. The team gathered around to have the soulful meal after a long day at work.

As the curator of many a chefs’ retreat and bespoke tables, I have been familiar with this endearing ritual that is often hidden from the diners – and yet, each time it happens, I cannot stop but wonder as to why such a brilliant composition with an fascinating ancestry hasn’t found its way into the fine dining spaces? The quandary cranks up further when one realises that the iconic congee/ kanji or kanjika as our ancestors would have called it isn’t just a post big service treat but a much-preferred dish of men and women behind the burner. Take for instance Chef Sharad Dewan (VP, Food Production, The Park Hotels), who finds congee – be it the Asian style or Indian – an amazing palate cleanser, nourishment and even something that helps you rejuvenate your senses. It is fascinating, says the seasoned culinary mind, “but when you are overwhelmed with food, which is a given in our lives, congee comes across as this delicious antidote that can rebuilt your zeal of interesting food. In fact, it is a standard fare for most of our chefs, especially on days when we have to work really long hours and occasions when we would like to throw a little palate party for our own taste-buds.”

What gives congee that edge, says Chef Gorai, who has researched the evolution of the gruel since the Indus Valley era, “is its composition. Most congee including the one had by the Indus Valley people are brilliant example of how to harvest both nutrients and flavours from grains using slow cooking. The whole process of cooking grains in seasoned water/milk/ stock is to allow the kernels to go through this gradual warming process that changes the composition of complex carbs in them creating a broth that is concentrated both in its wholesomeness and taste. And given that the grains are cooked well make for easy digestion too."

In fact, continues the culinary historian, “gruels back then played very much the role of what risottos, polentas, khichdis and even mashed potatoes play in today’s dish composition – they provide the filling canvas to different forms of accompaniments that could range from meat to vegetables to legumes, mushrooms and such.”

Or says North East culinary custodian Geeta Dutt, “in case of Mizoram Congee called Sangpiau, a serving of crispy pork belly, onion salads garnished with mustard cress ((microgreens).”

Congees versatility is something Chef Dewan seconds and calls it the “canvas on which many of our other dishes, including khichdi and Odia Kanji has been made.” If you look at the almost three thousand plus years of Congee history – at least written history – one would realise that while the white gruel was the most written about, Congees wasn’t just one dish but a category of ‘wholesome meal.”

In fact, Pliny The Elder who in his accounts extols the virtue of the Indian Congee/ Kanji served in the ports to weary sailors, called it the “powerhouse that can build or break a nation.” Upholding Congee as one of the brightest culinary idea of the time, Pliny had observed that such was the prowess of the dish that it can in its evolution help mankind evolve too. His object of obsession was the rice gruel – a easily available, popular one pot meal then – which had already conquered complete Asia and was influencing the porridges across the seas as well.

The reason behind the supremacy of the Asian rice congee was in its seasoning and versatility. Unlike Rome, where barley was the power ingredient and Italy where polenta ruled, the Asian rice gruel, especially of India and China scored in not only the variations they had in terms of just cooking it with milk, stock and water, but with abundance of produce from both land and sea had developed seasonal specialities that were great with taste, texture and wellness. In fact, China even had a season-and colour-coded graph for its five basic congees that laid the foundation for their food culture. So while, says culinary custodian Alka Jena, “the now popular all-white congee was for winters and was flavoured with root vegetables like radish and such and was great for the lungs, the red was for the heart and had beetroot; the black was for deep winters and had seaweed and all cured meats for flavour and additional nutrients. It was the same theme that our Odia Kanji, an ancient version of the rice based congee follows too, which takes on a white and green texture thanks to the vegetables – greens and roots – that are cured and then slow cooked in the fermented rice water called peja.”

Stark different to this is the Congee had by the Ahom Kings that used the pork broth and ferns to give the Congee its distinct aroma, taste and nourishment. So valued were these simple yet delicious one pot meal, says Dutta, “that Congee would often be a part of the work meal in many imperial court- and even be served to the army. And the reason wasn’t just the easiness of cooking this three ingredient dish through out the year, it was what they dish was providing – and we aren’t just talking nutrition, but enough time for minds to concentrate on other areas of bettering life, one of them unfortunately being war too.”

Another aspect of Congee popularity was the fact that it was a great equaliser, adds Chef Gorai, “from kings to foot soldier everyone had it – and that gave the sense of belonginess, of being a community or a part of a kingdom. Which in effect led to the building of some of the great empires of the world. Even Britishers used one of the later versions of Congee to gain acceptance into the Indian soil called Kedgeree (their version of the Khichdi).”

However, adds nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin, “what kept Congee relevant through the years wasn’t just the simplicity or versatility of the dish, it was what the dish brought to the wellness table. With grain/ rice as its primary component, Congee scored not only in terms of being a low-calorie, low-fat dish, but also as a filling meal. The fact that it could take flavours in form of meat and vegetable meant it could be fortified with more nutrients as per the season. But at the end it was the soulful feeling which made Congee timeless – and the credit goes to rice, an inherently cool ingredient that has the potential to calm your stress down, especially when cooked with milk.”

One of the main reasons why in history, Congee was the first meal of the day – after all, says Bhassin, “when your mind is calm, and soul nourished can you be productive.” Could that be the reason Congee is seeing a resurgence these days? Yes, is the answer.