Congee is a porridge made from simmering rice till it falls apart. Unlike the gruel which Oliver Twist was subject to, Congee is actually considered to be a quality dish in the Far East and in Western parlance is more like a meat or seafood stew. In some versions, like Japanese Okayu and Teochew Moi, congee is made with the inividual rice kernals left intact. In most cases though, and the Cantonese are probably most famous for this, Congee is considered well made only if the rice is simmered till it disintegrates completely, leaving a silky smooth thick rice gruel. This type of congee is great for thickening soups and stews.
Wheat flour is troublesome to use as a thickener for soups as flour needs to be cooked at above the tempeature of boiling water before it looses that raw flour taste. It can’t be added to a soup directly, you have to fry it in butter to make a roux first. Corn starch creates an undesirable gooey texture. It also has a tendency to seperate and loose its viscouscity with time and after boiling so it can only be added at the last moment and all the soup must be consumed immediately. Is there something else we can use to make our soups thicker and richer?
Cantonese style congee on the other hand has none of these issues and it is quite a healthy alternative. It also has a very subtle plain taste which will only enrich and not alter your soups primary flavour. Although you can use congee to thicken any soup, it is best used to with chowder or puree type soups. For pure cream soups like cream of chicken or oysters florentine soup, you’d be better of making a roux from butter and flour for that distinct buttery taste.
There is however a well known shortcoming with congee, which is perhaps the reason it is not often suggested as a soup thickener. It takes a long time for rice to disintegrate completely, perhaps upwards of 2 hours of slow simmering. Some people use an immersion blender to shorten the cooking time but that means cooking the congee seperately and besides you only need a very small amount thickening purposes.
Let me give you a better way. Soak the rice for five minutes and then freeze it in a zip lock bag. Water inside the grain will freeze and expand, and as it does it will weaken the integrity of the rice kernals, making them fall apart more easily. It doesn’t matter how long it is frozen, for an hour or overnight.
Finally some details about the actual process. There is no need to boil some congee seperately, just add raw rice when you are boiling the stock. The rice should pretty much disintegrate in about half an hour if it was has been frozen before. If it’s a stew or chowder, just add the rice directly at the beginning. It’s as simple as that. How much should you add? Rice expands to many times its original size when hydrated and I would say up to (i.e. sometimes less than) 1 tablespoon per cup of liquid.
- Use only oriental type rice, preferably the short grained type. Japanese rice is one such type. These will breakdown faster. Tough varieties, like those you use for making risotto, and defintely wild rice, are unsuitable. Check out my rice page for details on types of rice grains.