China’s comforting breakfast gruel goes glam
Author Amber Gibson Photography Narayan Mahon
Like ramen before it, China’s humble rice porridge, congee, is beginning to attract notice in the U.S., as it offers an immensely customizable Asian take on comfort food.
Chef Tory Miller (pictured) of Sujeo, in Madison, Wisconsin, first encountered an MSG-filled version of the dish as a teenager in Chicago’s Chinatown and found it gamey and salty. His challenge? Update congee without sacrificing its simplicity. “My first inspiration was risotto and the way cheese rinds incorporate a rich umami flavor,” he says. His East-meets-Midwest version bolsters Korean Rhee Chun rice with local Sarvecchio parmesan cheese in place of the MSG, plus steamed chicken, ginger, fish sauce–soaked Thai chili, and lime.
At San Francisco’s SPQR, Matthew Accarrino interprets congee with American ingredients through an Italian lens, cracking golden rice from South Carolina’s Anson Mills and cooking it into a creamy risottolike porridge with veal sweetbreads, turnips, and yuzu mostarda. Chef Bryant Ng of Santa Monica’s Cassia describes congee as “Asia’s chicken soup” and tops his with a salad of smoked shredded chicken, minced ginger, sweet onion, white pepper, and herbs.
In Chicago, congee gets a sweet twist as the dessert course at 42 Grams. Chef Jake Bickelhaupt ferments bamboo rice, chosen for its vibrant green color and floral flavor, then folds in chewy dehydrated Chinese ya pear and crunchy puffed rice. Miso caramel and a scoop of butterscotchy dulse seaweed gelato top it off.
“The congee is naturally sweet from the fermentation process,” Bickelhaupt explains. “It’s my interpretation of salted caramel, with Asian ingredients.”