You can’t escape the word in Hong Kong – everywhere you turn there’s a congee house of some sort, serving 粥 – jūk (Cantonese) or zhōu (Mandarin). A staple across Asia, congee is a preparation of – depending on where you live – rice (or other grains or legumes) boiled in water, using grains that may be long or short, whole or broken; some versions substitute water with milk or coconut milk. It is served plain, accompanied by side dishes (salted duck egg, seafood, pickled vegetables or braised meat), or cooked together with ingredients such as chicken, preserved egg or herbs.
There are as many names for congee as there are versions of it. A sampling from around the region includes muay (Hokkien, Teochew); chok or khao tom (Thai); cháo (Vietnamese); hsan pyok (Burmese); bâbâr (Khmer); bubur (Malay, Indonesian); lúgaw (Tagalog); okayu (Japanese).
Congee as a dish is documented in ancient East and South Asian texts, particularly associated with ritual fasting. The earliest reference can be traced back to the Zhou dynasty (circa 1000BC). It is also mentioned in the Chinese Record of Rites(1st century AD) and noted in Pliny’s account of India circa AD77. The dish does tend to be associated with East Asian cuisine, so it is interesting to discover that the word “congee” has its origins in the Tamil kanji (also the Telugu and Kannada gañji, the Malayalam kanni and the Urdu ganji), from kanjī (“boilings”), referring to the water in which rice has been cooked.
The Portuguese encountered the word in their colonies and it was documented in physician and botanist Garcia de Orta’sColóquios dos simples e drogas da India (1563) – the earliest treatise on the medicinal and economic plants of India – as canje (though the Portuguese canja today refers to a chicken broth). Several early representations in other European languages – candgie (Latin), cangia (Italian), canjé (French) – appear through the 1600s. The word was adopted into English from the Portuguese, as subsequent colonial powers did with many Portuguese words.
Early English documentation is found in A New Account of East-India and Persia (1698) and the 1800 English translation (from the German translation of the original Italian) of A Voyage to the East Indies, Carmelite missionary Paolino da San Bartolomeo’s 1796 observations on India, which describes “Cagni, boiled rice water, which the Europeans call Cangi”.
Two centuries on, it is not just the Europeans who use the word “congee”. In Singapore, however, it’s porridge.