There comes a time in every Asian's trek through Europe where you hit your limit of bread and cheese and cured meats, and inevitably start pining for the familiar rice-and-soy-based flavours of the East. Over these last few days in the Baltic states, my craving has been for porridge, and with it all the people at the table at the time. Authentic relief will have to wait, so best I can do for now is to congee up a few memories.
Growing up in Singapore, congee was always associated with rest and recuperation.
Until my Dad started going to church (when I was about age 9 or 10), each Sunday he would make a big vat of bone-still-in chicken congee, and after I got home from Sunday School we'd both spoon and pick through it watching the English Premier League soccer match of the week. Sometimes, if we dawdled, we'd drift into a Tamil or Hindi movie without English subtitles, and make up our own completely ridiculous plot and dialogue. It was a great way to recharge before Monday, for me at least.
Later, when my parents decided that Sunday would be a no-cooking day, congee became a Saturday breakfast affair, brought home as part of my Mum's weekly haul from the Marine Terrace Market . Whether it was with chunks of chicken and cuttlefish, or slivers of pork with century egg , my favourite part was (and still is) a raw egg cracked in. Bye bye hangover.
Whenever my brother or I fell ill, it'd be home-cooked congee on the table. Sometimes plain and soupy, with pickled chinese cabbage. Other times, bonanza! Porridge with the seafoody sweetness of dried scallop. However sick either of us were, there'd always be enough fight left in us to kick up a royal fuss if the other dared to nick some (and we always did).
Not altogether consciously at the time, I ended many a work week and started many a weekend with congee with friends. On many Friday nights, I'd be at a late night eatery in Hougang ordering up a Teochew porridge storm of little savoury dishes like salted duck eggs, minced pork patty steamed with salted fish, braised squid rings, and fried tofu skins braised in dark soy sauce to go with the comforting blandness of rice boiled in too much water. Saturday mornings saw a more Cantonese approach -- ingredients cooked with the rice into a savoury silken mix -- either at the upper floor of Tiong Bahru Market or House of Rice Roll & Porridge in River Valley. The combination of gruel, griping, giggling and gossiping was unfailingly good for the soul.
I lived only for a short while in New York, but in that period dragged anyone who would let me to Big Wong on Mott St each Saturday morning for congee and giant crullers (pictured above). I was pleasantly shocked when I visited this past May to find that their congee prices hadn't changed in a decade...at least not enough to notice. More recently while living in London, whenever I fell ill, I'd drag myself to Hung Tao on Queensway for porridge before slumping off home.
How is it that in all these years I've never learned to make this stuff? Maybe because anytime I'm really craving congee, I'm not in any state to cook. This obviously needs remedying when I reach Singapore in the spring, as part of this round-the-world trek.
In the meantime, how about you? What does congee conjure up for you? What's your favourite place(s) for great gruel or your recommended rice congee recipe?
House of Rice Roll & Porridge
75 Killiney Road
+65 6736 1355
Big Wong (recently renamed Big Wong King due to rivalry with a breakaway branch)
67 Mott Street
New York, NY 10013, USA
London, W2 4QH, UK
+44 20 7727 5753