What Happens When the Colonizers Don’t Discuss Porridge?

Singapore has a pretty amazing history and story of development.  We’ll probably talk about it one day (or over several days, so I don’t bore you all too badly), but you’ll be relieved to know that today is not that day.

Today, we’ll just spend 0.3462 seconds (precisely – so read fast!) on a small piece of that history, from 1819-1965, when Singapore was a British colony.  Specifically, we shall focus on how, in those 147 years, the Chinese and the Brits never once sat down to develop a shared definition of porridge.  [I mean, seriously – it’s not like they were busy building up – and subsequently defending – a massive trading port or anything…]  The result of this oversight was, as I have dramatically named it, The Great Porridge Confusion of 2007.  Read on:

When I was growing up (in the US), “porridge” was something that appeared exclusively in Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  At home, what we ate was called oatmeal.  But heck, somewhere along the way, someone must have explained to me that “porridge” was, essentially, British for oatmeal. I lived with this happy world-view until my first trip to Singapore in 2007.  Whenever we traveled to Singapore for a visit,  we’d stay with KMN’s parents, who generously provided as much room and board as we needed.  One afternoon during my first visit, we sat down for lunch together.  His Mom had prepared “porridge”.

My Brain: “Huh?!?!  I thought I was the only one who knew that oatmeal could be eaten as breakfast, lunch, or dinner.  But they’re going to have oatmeal for lunch! Oh my word, I’ve only been dating him for 6 months, but I already feel like I belong in this family.  Oatmeal for lunch, WHOOoooooo…..”

My excitement quickly faded as I was asked to please carry the scallions, fried shallots, and fried bread pieces over to the table, to top the porridge.  I began to suspect that something was amiss, and so I wasn’t totally surprised when KMN’s Mom mentioned that we should make sure we got some prawns when we scooped our porridge.  All right, then, it was confirmed – we certainly weren’t going to be eating fruits/nuts/honey topped oatmeal.  So what were we eating?  Well, fast-forward to a discussion I had with KMN in private, after lunch…

Me: “So..ummm…Chinese porridge….It’s not oatmeal, is it?”

KMN: “Hahaha!  No, it’s definitely not oatmeal.  Oatmeal?!?!  Why would porridge be oatmeal?” [My husband has an incredible ability to only think about food and food names in one cultural context at a time.  This has resulted in more than one frustrating/hilarious conversation.]

Me: “Uh…I think the western world considers ‘porridge’ to be  made from oats.  But Chinese porridge is just….really, really super over cooked rice, isn’t it?”

KMN: “Yup!  And it’s so good, isn’t it??”

Me: “Ummm…..”

And there you have it, folks.  Chinese porridge (also called congee) is soupy, mushy rice, lightly salted and often served with a bit of meat (shrimp, ground pork).  It can be garnished with scallions, fried shallots and/or fish cakes.

Congee, Porridge, Chinese comfort food

My most successful congee, to date. Singaporean readers, don’t laugh at how I mis-cut the fishcake. We’ll dissect the good, bad, and ugly of this dish in depth tomorrow. 🙂

To be frank, the appeal of this dish eluded me for a few more years – but slowly, I’ve grown to accept it, like it,  and appreciate its place in Chinese cuisine.  It’s also an easy (theoretically), economical meal that stretches a small amount of ingredients a long way.  It’s also like the chicken soup of Chinese cooking.  It’s a dish that gives KMN warm fuzzies, and what he was fed when he was sick.  It’s comfort food. But I guess…when put that way…maybe it’s not so different from oatmeal, after all.

Now, I’d originally started this post to describe the ups and downs of my various attempts to make this supposedly simple dish.  But I’ve already babbled on for far too long (Word Count: 650, ’cause I know you were wondering).  So the photo on the right will have to do for now, and you’ll just have to stop back soon for the rest of the story…

What’s your vote: Chinese porridge, or British porridge??

13 thoughts on “What Happens When the Colonizers Don’t Discuss Porridge?

    1. Holly KN Post author

      Thanks, Mrs. D! Despite the trouble it gave me during prep, it actually turned out decently (this time). But one day, I aspire to be able to whip this up as stress-lessly as I can a batch of chicken soup! 🙂

      PS Ever though of starting your own cooking blog? You have some super-delicious stuff going on in that kitchen of yours! 🙂

      Reply
    2. Lillian

      Chinese porridge is way better. 😉
      I had a similar exchange with a British co-worker who came into the office with what he described as “porridge.”

      Me: hey what’s for breakfast?
      CW: i’ve got porridge.
      Me: you put fruit in your porridge?? (I’m thinking it’s suppose to be the savory rice soup)
      CW: yea, you’ve never had porridge before?
      Me: No not like that, wait… isn’t that oatmeal??
      CW: well i suppose you can call it that too!

      Reply
      1. Holly KN Post author

        Hahahaha – so funny that you had the reverse experience! Just wait until you hear the ‘carrot cake’ story, Lill.

        [And thanks for stopping by!]

        Reply
  1. Sarrilly

    hahahah! I love how your encapsulated the way KM talks so well – I could practically hear his “oatmeal?!” response perfectly in my head! 🙂

    Funny about isolating the idea of isolating one cultural idea at a time because I *totally* agreed that porridge=oatmeal…until I too realized that I grew up eating a sort of rice porridge growing up, esp. when I was sick. The Korean version also has well-cooked garlic and even sometimes ginger & dates (though I pick that stuff out). The plain version is just called “jook” (which is why i didn’t immediately make the connection) but the best version of it actually has a whole chicken thrown in and can be really flavorful and yummy with soy sauce 🙂 mmm. Honestly, I think I might have to vote for the rice version…but that might be because I love a whole lot of American breakfast foods (aHEM bagels…) over traditional oatmeal.

    I love these anecdotes 🙂 Can you tell? (And your congee looks good!)

    Reply
    1. Holly KN Post author

      I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that rice porridge transcends Chinese culture. I wonder if ‘jook’ and ‘congee’ have any root word in common…. I’ll need to do some linguistic research on that one! 🙂

      I think KMN’s Mom sometimes makes congee with chicken; and I make it with chicken stock – but definitely not the whole chicken. And when I don’t salt my stock enough, we top ours with soy sauce, too!

      And I have to confess…I can’t remember the PRECISE exchange we had (5+ years ago) over the porridge, and I wasn’t foresighted enough to know that I might want to blog about it someday. So I captured the essence, and fudged the exact words just a tad. Glad I did a good job. 🙂 Unfortunately, I can’t convey KMN’s tone to anyone who doesn’t know him!!

      Reply
  2. Karen

    I would personally differentiate between ‘porridge’ and ‘congee’ (which, yes, is also ‘jook’ in Cantonese 🙂 ).

    Porridge is pretty much overcooked rice, like you said. But seems to cover a lot of ground, ranging from the version of mushy rice in a soupy like consistency (rather like what you have in your photo – I can’t really see properly, sorry if I misinterpret!) to the thicker version of Cantonese congee.

    One version is Teochew porridge. Individual rice grains can still be seen even though the dish as a whole is soft and soupy (and plain on its own). Often accompanied by a number of small side dishes that are heavily seasoned or spiced, e.g. salted peanuts, fried fish, stewed tofu.

    My preferred version is Cantonese congee. It is cooked for much longer such that the rice grains have disappeared and has a much thicker in consistency. It is often cooked in stock (pork, chicken, fish/prawn, or a combination) that gives it flavour, and served with meat in it (e.g. chicken, pork, fish, prawn, liver), or egg (regular, salted or century). Often topped with spring onion (scallions), fried onions, garlic/sesame oil, and/or fried dough stick pieces (you tiao). Like Keemin, I have similar feelings about congee as the ultimate comfort food particularly when ill. Besides, I am Cantonese after all 😀

    Reply
    1. Holly KN Post author

      Hmm…now I must do some more research. The toppings you describe are like the congee I’m familiar with in Singapore, but the rice grains are still (sort of) visible – and it’s only cooked for an hour or so. So it sounds like what I know is a hybrid porridge… I’ll detail the recipe – from The Key To Chinese Cooking (Irene Kuo) – and my imperfect execution, in my next post. [Sorry the porridge isn’t very clear; by the time I got enough light for a decent photo, the top got very reflective!]

      Reply
  3. Pingback: Do-It-Yourself Porridge: A Work In Progress | Run With Holly

  4. erica

    I’ve never had a congee, but I don’t think I could do it for breakfast. I like my brekkies sweet! If it’s a late brunch, maybe I could do it. I mean, I learned to love baked beans on my eggs and toast, so I suppose I’d give it a try.

    Reply
    1. Holly KN Post author

      I definitely struggled with the savory breakfasts during my first few visits. Some items are more neutral, but there were certain things I could hardly bear to consider having pass my lips for breakfast (curry puffs). Thankfully, KMN’s family was good enough to keep some cereal on hand for me. 🙂

      Nowadays, though, I’m considerably more open to savory (still no curry puffs, though). But I’ve also found a few readily available local dishes that fulfill a “sweet breakfast” craving. I promise to introduce you to them, if you guys are ever able to make the trip. 🙂

      Reply

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