If you come from a traditional Chinese family and you are sick, what does your mother feed you? Most probably, it is rice porridge, also known as congee in other parts of the world. It can be plain porridge which you eat with canned pickled vegetables or pork porridge.
A recent article in the South China Morning Post described rice porridge as a comfort food with no equal.
According to the article, it is the food of love, health, home and the number one mood lifter.
Hongkongers, it said, used plain rice porridge to nurse someone back to health. Just like the Chinese in Sarawak. This is because porridge helps indigestion and can nourish the immune system and even relieve inflammation.
Some articles say it takes at least an hour to cook a pot of rice porridge. I guess that must be a big pot. If you are cooking a small pot of porridge, it takes a shorter time.
Yesterday, I decided to cook rice porridge for lunch because I was in a hurry to go the office. I knew I had a lot of cooked food in the fridge that I could enjoy with the dish. For instance, I had fried salted vegetables with pork and soya sauce and a pack of century eggs.
I also decided to fry the bitter gourds I bought a few days ago for a bargain with salted soya beans and chillies and garlic.
As I sat down to lunch, past memories associated with the rice porridge came back to me.
I remember feeding my younger sisters with porridge for their dinner. When I was growing up, it was the norm for children to have porridge with plain soya sauce and a bit of fried anchovies for their meals. After each mouthful of porridge, my sisters, who were six and eight years younger than me, would run around the long bench. They would come back for more after they had swallowed their food.
During a difficult period in the life of my family, we would have porridge with fried anchovies almost every day for lunch and dinner. In those days, anchovies were very cheap, unlike now when they are being sold for as much as RM70 per kg and are considered rich men’s food.
When I was young, my best friend and I lived next door to each other. Each of our family rented just a room in Sibu. My best friend used to eat porridge before going to school. Later, as she grew older and her family could afford to rent a whole house, she would wake up early to cook porridge. She would fry long beans, add seasoning and enjoy them with the porridge.
Because her mother worked, she would have the porridge and long beans again after school. In the evening, her mother would cook new dishes when she came home.
I did not know that the humble porridge could be elevated through the addition of other ingredients until I was in Form Two.
During a cookery class at St Elizabeth’s Convent School, now renamed SMK St Elizabeth, Sibu, my classmates and I were taught the art of making porridge with dried prawns.
Years later, on a trip to Hong Kong, I learnt that rice porridge could be enjoyed with Chinese cruller or yu char kweh.
The best rice porridge I have ever enjoyed was during a trip to Beijing in China. The hotel restaurant served plain porridge but prepared lots of side dishes to go with it. There were preserved vegetables made by the restaurant’s own chefs and lots of fried nuts. The side dishes were fantastic and made the porridge memorable.
Another good rice porridge I enjoyed was a beef and potato porridge made by a friend’s mother. The beef and potatoes, which were cut into very tiny slices, went well with the savoury taste of the porridge. God bless the old lady who has since then passed on for sharing the porridge with his son’s colleagues in the office.
In Kuching, if you want to eat porridge with a lot of side dishes, you can opt for Teochew porridge. The side dishes include salted radish with eggs, fried brinjal, salted egg, minced pork and preserved vegetables. The porridge is more expensive than the usual pork or fish porridge because of the wide variety of side dishes.
Whenever I am not in the mood to cook, I just head to my favourite stall for a bowl of pork rice porridge. It leaves me satiated, brings me happy memories of days gone by and makes me happy for the rest of the day.