Native to China, but also eaten throughout Southeast Asia, congee is a rice gruel made by boiling white rice until it disintegrates into a soup, rendering individual grains barely visible. It’s also called jook, zhou, or xifan. Congee was carried to America by Chinese immigrants in the mid-19th century and quickly became part of the Chinese-American canon, though it’s a dish served more often at home, and now rarely seen in Chinese restaurants, which is why the best place to get it remains in old-fashioned tea houses and duck shops in Chinatowns.
Congee can be served plain, but is often improved with added ingredients in modest quantities. (Congee is also a frugal dish.) The most popular are pork, beef, shredded lettuce, peanuts, black “century eggs,” sliced fish, and pig offal like kidneys and liver. Various ingredients, like duck blood cubes, are added for medicinal purposes.
Congee is often flavored with shredded fresh ginger and chopped scallions, and thus is not nearly as bland as plain boiled rice would suggest. Other condiments sometimes presented with congee include red chile oil and soy sauce. Squirt away! Congee is also frequently accompanied by a long baton of fried dough, called youtiao in Chinese. It’s akin to a doughnut, but it’s more airy and not sweet.
How do you use a youtiao? Some hold it in one hand and dip it in the congee. Others break it up into small pieces and float it in the soup, fishing the pieces out as they reach the desired level of sogginess. Sometime they are served hot and freshly fried, and can be so good you might want to eat them separately.