Nearly 25 years ago, while plying my trade as a financial journalist (long before I became a nutritionist), my employer sent me on a reporting trip to Malaysia that involved traveling into the rainforests of Borneo.
My memories of this trip are hazy. I remember spending several days stranded in a flooded jungle village where the only hotel room I was able to secure had no light, no window and no air-conditioning (basically, a damp concrete box). I killed time reading the amusing travel tale, Into The Heart of Borneo and acquiring an indecently large collection of batik sarongs.
Eventually I found some locals who were willing to ferry me in their wooden boat through swampy jungle rivers to a secret location to interview environmental campaigners about illegal logging practices. (Apparently their efforts bore some fruit, though Borneo’s majestic rainforests remain under threat from the unholy trinity of climate change, corporate greed and government neglect.) After my jungle adventure I flew back to Kuala Lumpur to write my article in the comfort of an air-conditioned hotel room.
Within hours of arriving at the hotel I started feeling faint, nauseous, sweaty and foggy-brained. The next morning the chambermaids found me in a state of feverish delirium, limp and incoherent, and immediately called a doctor. He told me I had picked up some jungle bug and told the chambermaids to go to the kitchen and find me a bowl of congee.
The thick, beige gruel they brought me didn’t look particularly appetizing, but as soon as it hit my tastebuds, I knew I would be fine. Yes, the dish provided much-needed hydration and sodium; but its benefits went well beyond that. The creamy, brothy porridge tasted deeply comforting, healing and soothing; I would go as far as saying it tasted of love. Within an hour, I started to feel human again.
Congee is essentially overcooked rice. Historical accounts suggest it was usually served during times of famine as a way to stretch limited rice supplies to feed more people. It likely originated in China but is wildly popular in many Asian countries, where it is also known as juk (Korean), muay (Hokkien, Teochew); chok or khao tom (Thai); cháo (Vietnamese); hsan pyok (Burmese); bâbâr (Khmer); bubur (Malay, Indonesian); lúgaw (Tagalog); okayu (Japanese). (If you want to geek out on congee, read the exhaustive Wikipedia entry here.)
Most recipes keep it simple, slowly cooking rice in water or broth for a long time over low heat until the grains disintegrate and turn into a thick, glutinous paste. Sometimes it is served sweet, but more often than not it’s topped with cooked pork or chicken and garnished with chopped scallions, cilantro, sesame seeds and a splash or soy sauce or sesame oil.
Rice that’s been cooked into a creamy mush is easy to digest and convert into blood sugar rapidly, providing a welcome burst of energy to anyone who’s languishing. However, for some — notably my metabolically challenged clients — a sudden influx of carby energy can be problematic, for a rapid surge in blood sugar can lead to a rapid rise in insulin, in turn causing a sharp slump in blood sugar, followed by more fatigue.
Some congee recipes contain up to 50 g carbohydrate per serving from super-starchy types of rice with glycemic index ratings in the 80s. (A GI over 70 is considered high. Glutinous rice, one of the varieties used to make congee, has a GI of 86.) What’s more, many congees consist only of rice and water, with very little in the way of protein, fat or fiber to slow down the digestion of the carbs. A glucose rollercoaster waiting to happen.
And so — with apologies to my Asian friends — I decided to make some tweaks.
First, I replaced rice with steel cut oats, which have a significantly lower glycemic impact (their GI rating is 42). Oats also contain B vitamins, iron, zinc and folate, as well as an impressive 5 g protein and 4 g fiber per 1/4 cup (dry). And if you think oats in chicken soup sounds weird, just think of Scottish cock a leekie (which, funnily enough, The New York Times featured just this week!)
Next, I add bone-in chicken thighs and cooked the porridge in chicken bone broth; this boosts the flavor and protein content of the dish. Even more therapeutically, bones and bone broth provide collagen and gelatin, proteins our bodies use to nourish our joints, hair, skin and gut lining. (Don’t be surprised if your congee turns into jello upon refrigeration; that’s the gelatin working its magic.)
In addition, I load up this healing soup with garlic, onions and fresh ginger, all of which can help to keep free radicals, cancer cells, inflammation and infections at bay. Oh — and make it taste amazing!
And for good measure I pile sliced shiitake mushrooms and shredded bok choy into the soup just before serving, thus adding texture, flavor, even more nutrients — not to mention much-needed bursts of color to this otherwise beige gloop.
Finally, I top it off with a drizzle of sesame oil and soy sauce and adorn it with a wide array of garnishes, including a crunchy umami topping that I recently discovered and want to spoon over pretty much everything these days.
In a final departure from tradition, I cook the congee in an Instant Pot, which reduces the cooking time from 1+ hours to 20 minutes and produces a deep flavor and thick, creamy texture. To avoid having to hunt for gnarly bits of chicken bone and cartilage in the hot soup (20 minutes under pressure will cause chicken to disperse into 1,000 tiny pieces) I cook the chicken in a cotton nut-milk bag; a piece of cheesecloth tied with kitchen twine would work perfectly, too.
I recently taught this dish at a webinar on gut health for the Boulder Community Health Cancer Center and we counted seven prebiotic foods (prebiotics are fibers and starches that nourish beneficial gut bacteria): garlic, onions, ginger, oats, mushrooms, bok choy and sesame seeds. Add to that cilantro’s anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, antifungal, antibacterial, cardioprotective and analgesic properties and the gut-soothing compounds in chicken broth and bones, and you’ve got yourself a veritable nutrient fest. Not bad for a bowlful of overcooked oats.
Chicken & Oat Congee
- 2 lbs chicken thighs bone-in, skin removed
- 1 cup steel cut oats
- 8 medium green onions (scallions) sliced, green and white portions separated
- 1 tbsp garlic minced (about 5-6 cloves)
- 1-2 tbsp ginger, fresh minced (about 1½ inches fresh ginger root)
- 5 oz shiitake mushrooms
- 4 heads baby bok choy
- ½ tsp salt
- 1 quart chicken bone broth unsalted
- 2 cups water filtered
- 1 tbsp Thai fish sauce
- 1 tbsp sesame oil roasted
- reserved scallion greens sliced
- fresh cilantro
- peanuts roasted, lightly salted, coarsely chopped
- sesame seeds toasted
- red pepper flakes
- crunchy umami topping for instance, this brand
- tamari, soy sauce or coconut aminos to taste
- sesame oil roasted
- Place oats, green onions (white parts), garlic, ginger, salt, chicken bone broth and water in the Instant Pot and stir to combine. If you have a cotton nut-milk bag (like this one) or a piece of cheesecloth, place the chicken in that and tie it up tightly before adding it to the pot. If not, simply add the chicken pieces to the other ingredients and stir to combine.
- Lock the lid and program the Instant Pot to PRESSURE COOK, HIGH for 20 minutes.
- While the congee is cooking, wash and thinly slice the bok choy; set aside. Trim the mushroom stems and slice the mushrooms thinly; set aside.
- Once the cooking time finishes, let the pressure reduce naturally for 10 minutes. Then release any remaining pressure by shifting the pressure valve to VENTING. (Cover the valve with a kitchen towel to catch the steam.) Once the pressure has been fully released, carefully open and remove the lid.
- Using kitchen tongs, gently lift the chicken out of the pot and place on a plate. If using a cotton bag or cheesecloth, untie this, pull out the chicken pieces (careful, hot!) and set them on the plate to cool. Squeeze the broth out of the cotton bag into the pot before rinsing it.
- While the chicken is cooling, briskly stir the congee with a wire whisk to break down the grains (oats will retain a little schape, whereas rice will almost completely dissolve into the broth.)
- Select SAUTE, NORMAL to reheat the congee. Add the sliced mushrooms and cook for 5 minutes until soft. Add the sliced bok choy and cook another 2-3 minutes until soft. Stir occasionally to prevent the congee from sticking to the bottom.
- While the vegetables are cooking, remove the chicken meat from the bones and shred coarsely. Once the vegetables are done, gently stir the meat back into the porridge.
- Season to taste with fish sauce and salt. Stir gently so as not to break up the chicken meat.
- Serve into individual soup bowls and garnish as desired. I usually load mine up with the reserved scallion greens (finely chopped), fresh cilantro, a pinch of red pepper flakes, a tablespoon of coarsely chopped peanuts or toasted sesame seeds, a teaspoon of crunchy umami topping and an additional drizzle of sesame oil.