At Crowne Plaza Hong Kong, after drinking from sunset to midnight, I called Room Service for a snack. Congee. It came with Chinese sausage, mushrooms and century egg. Unforgettable.
It was a turning point in my foodie life, honestly. And, to this day, a moment of utmost nostalgia. I never liked congee. As a child and as an adult. That might seem funny considering I was born and raised in a country that eats congee for breakfast, for midday snack and for mid-afternoon snack. And because it’s easy to digest, congee is invalid food too. It is, perhaps, that last association that made me hate congee so much.
I hardly remembered congee that wasn’t watery and bland. I had lost count of the yayas that tried to put spoonfuls of the stuff in my mouth. I had memorized the frustrated look on my mother’s face when, during hospital confinements during my childhood, I’d rather not eat than suffer the torture of eating sickbed congee. Maybe I was a difficult patient. Or, maybe, I just hated bad food even as a child.
Then, that fateful night in Hong Kong. Why I ordered congee to begin with is still a mystery to me. Addled brain, most probably, from all the alcohol I had consumed. Or, maybe, a twisted sense of humor. Or intense adventurism. Why not congee? I was, after all, in Hong Kong where the humble gruel was legendary. Whatever the reason, I called up Room Service and chose congee from the menu.
The bowl of congee that was delivered to our room changed my life. It was silky, it was rich and, with every spoonful, that interplay of flavors and textures. Salty-sweet sausage. The subtly chewy white of the century egg and the creamy yolk bursting with that funky taste that’s hard to describe but best experienced. Not that I hadn’t had Chinese sausage and century egg before. Gee, I grew up with them. But, until that night, I never had them mixed in my congee.
Still, it’s not like I immediately put congee on my list of Favorite Food of All Time. That took a while. But, since that night in Hong Kong, I stopped making faces when anyone mentioned congee. If there was a lesson I learned that night, it was this: congee, when cooked right, is delicious.
The congee of my childhood were one of two things: congee made with sticky rice which made it lumpy or congee made with regular rice and cooked just until the grains burst but long before that starch got mixed into the cooking liquid. Both versions were bad.
Good congee is silky. Thin or thick, it should be silky. And that means it isn’t enough that the rice is soft — the grains should be so soft to be almost mushy. Rice and liquid should form a homogenous mixture. If you can separate the rice grains from the liquid, well, it’s just overcooked rice cooked in too much liquid.
So, I learned to cook congee. And I realized that congee is one of those dishes that are deceptively simple to make. There’s an art to it, really, and mixing plays a huge part in the process. Unless you mix the congee while it cooks, the rice grains cannot properly release the starch into the cooking liquid.
It’s been over three years since that night in Hong Kong. Why recreate the Room Service congee just now? Because Hong Kong has been on my mind a lot lately. We’re booked for a Hong Kong / Macau trip late this year to attend the wedding of a friend’s daughter. As of writing time, the political situation in Hong Kong has resulted in flight cancellations. Not just by Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific but Philippine Airlines as well. Will the tension dissipate by December? I hope so.
Meanwhile, I relive that congee night in Hong Kong.
Congee, Crowne Plaza Hong Kong Style
- Slow Cooker
- ½ cup medium-grain rice (I used Japanese rice)
- 4 to 5 cups broth (bone broth is best)
- 1 tablespoon sesame seed oil
- 4 shiitake mushrooms (or your preferred mushroom), roughly chopped
- 2 Chinese sausages roughly chopped
- 2 to 3 century eggs peeled and roughly chopped
- ¼ cup finely sliced scallions
- Rinse the rice several times.
- Place the rice in the slow cooker, pour in the broth and stir. If the broth is unseasoned or under-seasoned, add salt and pepper.
- Set the slow cooker to LOW and cook the congee for eight hours. Stir every two hours. Crank up the heat to HIGH and cook for another two hours.
- Heat the sesame seed oil in a frying pan and fry the mushrooms over medium heat with a little salt for about two minutes.
- Add the sausages to the mushrooms and cook for another two minutes.
- Stir the sausage / mushroom mixture, century eggs and scallions into the congee.
- Ladle congee into bowls. Serve hot with soy sauce on the side.