I’ll start by saying that I’m not one for sweet breakfasts. As regular readers will know (ex. 1, ex. 2, ex. 3), I prefer savory foods leftover from the night before to American breakfast cereal or glazed donuts. A recent trip to Yogyakarta, Indonesia brought savory breakfasts to a new level for me–and using simple rice porridge as a vehicle! This is explained in the following post.
Rice porridge (or congee) is a very common meal in East and Southeast Asia. It is remarkably filling and it is an easy-to-digest anytime food.
Perhaps to many readers, rice porridge will best known as a breakfast, a late night snack, or as a part of dim sum varied offerings in southern China and among Chinese emigre communities in Chinatowns around the world. In those locations it is generally known as 粥 zhou (Mandarin) or juk or jok in southern dialects. In Philadelphia, my favorite location for juk is sadly about to close down. Heung Fa Chun Sweet House, You will be missed! (UPDATE 10 Nov 16: It looks like Heung Fa Chun is still going, though it seems to be under new management. They are still selling their lean meat/preserved egg juk!)
Rice porridge is very easily prepared. Just overboil the rice in too much water to the point that it breaks down to a mush (1.5-2 hours). Sometimes it is boiled together with pork, fish, chicken, and/or eggs. It can then be seasoned with soy sauce, black or white pepper, fresh ginger, cilantro, green onion, fried garlic. It is delicious and classic. Below you can see an example of a great Sino-Thai version.
In Southeast Asia, rice porridge is built off that same Chinese classic, largely due to the enormous ethnic Chinese populations that relocated to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Cambodia over the past hundred or so years. In most of those renditions you can still see vestiges of Chinese influence to the crucial accompaniments to this dish: deep fried dough, soy sauce, pickled Chinese cabbage. All of those are still standard in southern China, as well as in other places where southern Chinese have settled.
Somehow in Indonesia, that simple presentation of rice porridge wasn’t enough. From what I can gather through my travels in person and online, rice porridge in Indonesia is anything but boring. Just to give you a sense of how different rice porridge can be there, try following these two links: a Google image search for Chinese-style rice porridge, zhou 粥, and an image search for Indonesian bubur ayam “chicken porridge”. Do you see what I mean? For the first link you have recognizable congee or porridge, and in the other link, there’s party in a bowl.
My bubur ayam experience was eye-opening for me, though the preparation I regularly had in Yogyakarta was a little different than examples I see in videos online that are perhaps more Jakarta-focused (See here for one such entertaining video example from Mark Wiens of migrationology.com as he explores a Jakarta bubur ayam stall).
The experience that I am trying to replicate is from Hotel Meliá Purosani in Yogyakarta. Theirs was a rice porridge cooked thick in chicken broth, lumped into a bowl, covered with crunchy, pickled and salty Indo-Chinese toppings AND THEN topped with an intensely flavored coconut curry-like soup. That left quite an impression on me. Pickled cabbage, cilantro, white pepper, and crunchy deep fried dough were very familiar pairings to me, but the curry soup thing took things to a new and different level. I had to try it at home. Below are my first efforts on a “next-level” congee, followed by a recipe of sorts:
Bubur ayam Meliá Purosani – Chicken porridge à la Hotel Meliá Purosani
- Step 1. Prepare intense savory chicken soup (for later topping). That recipe requires a recently discussed salam leaf, and will likely be a basic soto recipe that is chicken or beef based. I adapted largely from an excellent recipe posted online from André Chiang at Snapguide.com. See the photo series below of my version, and compare to Andre’s version. This soup can be prepared the night before if need be.
- Step 2. Boil some rice in chicken broth. I used a few generous scoops of cooked jasmine rice, with leftover chicken broth from my soto experiment. Boil for as long as it takes so you don’t recognize the grains anymore. Don’t leave it alone for too long though, stir every 10 minutes or so otherwise it will burn on the bottom. If it is getting too thick and sticking too much, just add more broth or water. It will probably take 1.5 hours.
- Step 3: While the rice is cooking, prepare all other toppings (besides the soup). That might mean baking or frying crunchy bits, and chopping green aromatics. Any or all of the following may apply…
BONUS: Chinese/Southeast Asian rice porridge topping guide
- Deep fried dough. In Chinatown and internationally, this item is likely best known by its Mandarin Chinese name, youtiao 油条 (see below image. If you find it at the fridge section it will likely be labeled as “Chinese cruller”, “Chinese donut” or “油条”). Among Chinese emigre communities it might also be referred to as “oil fried devil” 油炸鬼 you zha gui, or how they are referred to in Indonesia after being that name was transmitted in Hokkien: cahkwe.
Assuming you don’t get them freshly deep-fried and find them in the fridge section, bake in your oven at 350 for 10 minutes or until starting to crisp. Then you can cut them up smaller if you like.
- Soy sauce. Kecap (have you heard the story about how our “ketchup” is related to Southeast Asian/Chinese sauces? If not, check this Codeswitch page. You can use different soy sauces to your preference. Basic soy sauces from China/Japan/Korea are very salty, of course. In Yogyakara, most prefer sweet soy sauce for their porridge, or kecap manis. Image below.
- Chopped cilantro and green onion. These are pretty standard everywhere.
- Pickled cabbage/other vegetable. At the hotel, they used a pale colored salty vegetable that I find is very similar to the Lychee Brand pickled cabbage (product of Thailand). In Indonesian, this may be referred to as tongcai “tongchai” 冬菜 (dongcai in Mandarin).
- Fried soy nuts/soy beans. These I haven’t seen in China besides as toppings for Guilin noodles. It must not be so common for southern Chinese cooking, since they are not commonly found Asian groceries. You can get fried/roasted soy nuts at health food stores, or places like The Head Nut at Reading Terminal Market. If possible, seek out lightly salted or unsalted soy nuts. For dishes like the bubur ayam, all of the other toppings are already salty.
- Ground white pepper. This may be a universal, but Southeast Asia is the home for this spice.
- Other crunchy fried toppings, like Emping bumbu (melinjo chips), deep fried noodles, etc. If you use emping chips, deep fry them first! I didn’t and it was awful. You’ll notice I had a raw one in my otherwise beautifully prepared bowl above. If you fry them, they crisp up like a poppadom.
- Chopped Chinese celery.
- Dried pork, beef, or fish sung or “floss”. This is known as 肉松 rou song in Chinese. It’s like meat cotton candy. See here for a wiki entry on the stuff.
- Fried garlic. This is a standard topping in Thailand. Just chopped garlic fried until completely dry and golden in oil. Fried shallots might be also used in Indonesia.