Congee and Wet Breakfasts for Health
Hydration is key to good health, and wet breakfasts are an often forgotten key to good hydration. Wet breakfasts—porridges and congee—absorb a great deal of water as they cook, fluid is gradually given up during digestion, like a time-release capsule of healthy hydration. Beyond bringing fluids into the system so effectively, wet breakfasts soothe and restore the organs of digestion themselves (in Chinese Medical terms, Stomach, Spleen/Pancreas, Small Intestine and Large Intestine). Wet-cooked porridges or congee is the breakfast of choice for a wide variety of health needs ranging from
nourishing weak digestion,
conditions of chronic dehydration,
inflammation or heat pathologies,
those especially young, old or convalescing at any stage of life,
anyone who challenged their digestion with an extensive or challenging dinner the previous evening,
anyone who may have stayed up too late or had a bit too much wine, etc.
Anecdotally, wet breakfasts have been the foundation of remarkable improvements in a number of individuals I have taught who were struggling with serious conditions. Dangerously high blood pressure brought into normal range, severely weakened digestion brought back to good function… there are many instances of success, large and small. Dramatic improvements are not difficult, although adopting consistent new breakfast habits sometimes can be. Since chronic dehydration underlies many serious health conditions, consistent adoption of cooked, wet breakfasts can provide real improvement as well as symptom relief. At the very least, medical treatment can then be calibrated to what we need and can’t do for ourselves with a little extra kitchen effort in the mornings.
Even without a medical condition, congee and breakfast porridge can be wonderful to eat and wonderful for us. The Stomach, Spleen and Pancreas work well with grains in the morning (Chinese Medicine has observed a natural rhythm governing when each organ system is most active). The morning is Stomach and Spleen/Pancreas time, the time when grains are best metabolized and therefore when the use of grains can help stabilize our inner clock. In our family, with young children, we say, “Taste the grain first, wake up your Spleen, let your body know there is some good food coming in.” Although it is trendy to avoid carbs and grains, it is really sugar that has caused the metabolic problems for so many people. Grains are very important for metabolism and digestion, the foundation of good health, if skillfully used.
As with all common foods, recipes vary between cultures and families. How to make good congee and other porridges is one of the common questions I am asked during dietary consults or while teaching energetics of food. Some recipes and a bit of dietary theory are included below.
To make good congee (jook in Cantonese), use good quality medium-grain or long-grain white rice, preferably grown in the style suited to the Asian market in America. Asia doesn't generally export grain, so the best choice is one of several high quality Asian-style rices grown in California, much of which is exported to Japan. Fluffy rice types, sometimes called ‘Carolina’ style, aren't best for congee. Also avoid short-grain, arborio or risotto rices, they are too sticky.
1 cup dry rice makes enough congee for 4-6 people. Eventually the amount of water for 1 cup white rice is 8-10 cups or more, depending on the type of rice, humidity, and cooking style.
Begin by bringing 8-12 cups water to a boil. Use a stock pot on the stove burner behind the congee pot. Simple stocks can be used, but avoid complex chicken or bone stocks for congee.
Put 1 cup uncooked long-grain white rice in large pot. Turn heat to high, add a tablespoon of good oil (grapeseed, organic peanut, safflower, etc. Use a light oil, but always select oils for appropriate energetic and freshness). Stir so each grain is coated lightly with oil. Add two generous pinches salt.
Then, add just enough boiling water to float the grains, perhaps 1 cup (no need to measure carefully). Stir constantly as the grains absorb the water. When almost dry, add more boiling water, keep stirring. After 3 or 4 gradual additions of water while you are nearly constantly stirring (about 10 minutes), the grains will have given up starch to the water.
Once the grains have released starch into the cooking water, you can add a lot more water and turn flame down to a gentlemanly low simmer for about 30-45 minutes, now stirring occasionally. Do not allow the grains to settle and stick to the bottom of the pot. Add water as needed to get the special congee consistency, in other words, milky water between discernible rice grains, very soft cooked.
Once done, congee is always served with other things—start simply and elegantly with slivered fresh ginger and sliced scallions, a splash of good soy sauce and toasted sesame oil.
Eat with simple condiments (with scallion, soy sauce, ginger and toasted sesame oil) or improvise more substantial additions: sliced fish, seafood, nuts, pumpkin/squash, corn niblets, soft-boiled eggs, gently cooked bean sprouts, dried scallops, sliced pork, duck, chicken, cilantro, etc., often utilizing leftovers from the refrigerator or contributions from the freezer. Always consider your intention when selecting ingredients, based on your growing knowledge of food energetics and current health needs.
Energetically, wet cooked rice strongly nourishes Stomach Yin and fluids; the ginger harmonizes digestion, resolves bloating and phlegm. The soy sauce and scallions provide similar influence to a very old herbal remedy from Chinese Medicine, the herbal decoction known as Cong Chi Tang, from the writings of the early Daoist sage Ge Hong (283-343 CE). In Cong Chi Tang scallion whites and fermented soybeans are combined to treat the onset of common cold, the sensation of catching a chill: the pungent fermented soybeans nourish fluids and the mild spiciness of the scallion stimulates movement of those fluids up to the Lungs and out to the skin, helping open the exterior for a mild healing sweat (good hydration and transport of fluids to the Lungs and skin is necessary for effectively handling the beginning of a common cold or flu). Fresh ginger joins the soy sauce to support this simple and elegant health strategy. The toasted sesame supports Kidney energetics (sesame seeds resonate with the Kidneys). When toasted, sesame seeds are more uplifting. In the terms of dietary Chinese Medicine, toasted sesame works more with Kidney Yang, roughly equivalent to adrenal functions, providing a gently uplifting energy nicely appropriate for morning.
Some kind of protein and fat is almost always served with congee as well. One traditional combination is white fish filets and boiled peanuts (organic only), or a few slices of pork with fat from last night's dinner (not common at our place but very
common in China), or very often, hard or soft boiled egg. Egg is the easiest way to go, protein and fat together. Having a boiled or poached egg with congee is very different than a fried egg with toast, although both are egg and a grain. The wet cooking method of congee and the wet cooking method of poaching or boiling an egg is far gentler than a fried egg with dry toast (toast is twice baked, first as bread then dry baked with high heat in a toaster). Wet cooked eggs do not cause cardiovascular problems. Now that official dietary advice has recanted two generations of incorrect warnings on dietary cholesterol and heart disease and is pointing toward inflammation as the cause underlying cardiovascular illness, it is easier to understand the view of Chinese Medicine that eggs can be wonderful food if cooked appropriately. Wet cooking methods are best; eggs that are fried require much more participation of Liver and Gall Bladder to digest, potentially stressing these organs. It is the stress to the Liver and the resulting heat than can underly inflammation at the blood level. This may sound technical; simply put, boiled or poached eggs with congee and condiments provide the nourishment of eggs and grain while supporting digestion and the immune system, at the same time as protecting against inflammation.
One of our favorites is congee with dried scallops (find in Chinatown at varying price levels). Drying the scallops concentrates their flavor enormously, creating something quite unique and wonderful. Begin by rehydrating three or four dried scallops per person in 10 cups cool water, then bring that water toward a boil. When it’s hot, cook the congee as described above, adding scallop water for cooking the rice. Just prior to serving, add the scallops themselves, or reserve them for a more focused presentation, placing them in the bowl with the condiments. Energetically, congee is best when selecting foods that nourish the Kidney or source qi level of health (scallops, fish, egg, peanuts). The wet-cooked rice and the source qi level protein make a very strong combination, nourishing the level of digestion/nourishment qi and constitutional/source qi in a powerful way.
When making congee, home cooks tend to make certain common mistakes:
Do not use leftover rice that is already cooked. It is the slow absorption of water that makes congee such a special dish. If you have leftover rice, make stir-fried rice if appropriate.
Don’t forget to include a tablespoon or two of good quality oil at the beginning, and a nice pinch of salt. Restaurant congee can be very salty; mine has just enough to be noticed if you taste for it. Salt provides a mineral contribution, a hint of the idea that all life originates in the sea. Gentle saltiness resonates with our Kidneys, just as extreme saltiness stresses them.
Be sure to add plenty of water. Cooking congee is a revelation—the rice absorbs, absorbs and absorbs. Often, when you believe it to be ready, turning your attention to preparing bowls or yet another furtive checking of email, the congee in the pot thickens again. Simply open it up with a bit of boiled water. Cooking congee is an essential experience in beginning to understand how fluids work in the body: if the rice in the pot absorbs so much fluid, it must be doing something similar inside our digestions. One reason congee or porridge is so beneficial is that we are eating the grain after it has absorbed as much fluid as it will. That’s when it’s done and ready to eat.
Never eat congee plain. It is always completed with condiments and usually with one or two protein items. If sick, it is fine to have only with basic condiments until appetite returns.
Avoid adding too many additions to one bowl. As with any dish, clarity is more important than complexity.
Millet makes very good porridge. It is common to find a huge pot of millet porridge next to the huge pot of congee in breakfast places in China, particular in Beijing or other northern areas. Millet is a whole grain, whereas rice congee is made from white rice (good congee can be made from long-grain brown rice if you have a grain grinder to coarsely split the grain, exposing the starchy center, but it is certainly untraditional.) Although we usually focus on whole grains having more nutrients than refined or ‘polished’ grain, it is important to understand that whole grains are more taxing to digestion and should be avoided by anyone with weakened digestion due to factors of illness, fatigue, or stress. White rice is the easiest grain to digest, especially good for morning eating, but if whole grains are desired, millet is the best choice.
1 cup dry millet makes porridge serving 4-6.
Always wash millet prior to cooking. Put the dry millet in pot, more than cover with cold water then gently tip the water over the side, 3 or 4 times, until the water runs clear. Strain the millet in a hand-held strainer to drain the last water before returning to the pot to begin cooking.
Turn the heat to medium high, stir the millet constantly to encourage it to dry. Continue stirring as the millet dries, gradually dry roasting the millet. This step is optional: dry roasting adds more uplifting Yang Qi to foods (and a nuttier flavor) while millet prepared without dry roasting is more moistening and especially soothing.
Traditionally, no oil or salt is added. Use your own taste here; adding oil and salt is fine. Butter pairs very well with millet as well.
Add hot water, a little at a time, stirring constantly for the first 10 minutes.
Add quite a bit more hot water (perhaps 4 or 5 cups), turn heat down to a simmer, continue to stir only occasionally,
After 30-45 minutes (precision isn’t necessary) the millet has given up its starch to the water in a special way. There is water between the softened grains that is somewhat thick with millet starch.
Serve like congee, in a bowl with a few things added such as seeds, an egg, some tamari.
Some people like to sweeten millet porridge with honey, others prefer salty tastes such as tamari, seaweed, and so forth.
Similar porridges are easily made with buckwheat (kasha). Use whole buckwheat kernels for a congee-like porridge (but much nuttier tasting), or use cracked buckwheat for a cream-of-wheat consistency. Add seeds, nuts, eggs, other protein and salt, or, if appropriate for your health, something sweet (decide either protein/salty or sweet). Buckwheat is not related to wheat, it is not even technically a grain (all true grains are members of the grass family, including rice, wheat, barley, rye and oats). Buckwheat is gluten-free.
Another western civilization porridge is made with polenta or corn grits. Source good quality organic corn (so much corn is genetically modified for purposes other than human consumption that insisting on organic corn is very important). Start with some fat (I use butter with corn polenta or grits), good pinch salt, then boiling water, stirring or whisking constantly to avoid lumps. I know people who serve this with honey; I prefer a bit more butter, salt and a grind of black pepper if a little boost is needed (and not a problem for the individual).
Polenta or grits varies greatly depending upon quality and style of the simple ingredient: cracked corn. Look around for a few brands you like, perhaps including a few heirloom varieties sourced from the internet. Each requires slightly different cooking times. Traditional grits need an hour or more of cooking; instant grits aren’t worth eating. Find the coarseness and type between the extremes that you prefer.
Three tiny ancient grains/seeds that are popular today also make good porridges: quinoa, amaranth and teff. Amaranth is my favorite of these, but many people prefer quinoa. Teff, an African grain, is the smallest, dark brown, nutty in flavor, and excellent. They are all gluten-free, high in protein, fiber, minerals, easy to cook and delicious. Amaranth and Teff are too tiny to wash but quinoa needs to be washed to remove the slightly soapy taste due to naturally occurring saponins. Then cook simply with boiled water, whisking or stirring to keep smooth, adding water to reach a porridge consistency. For morning porridge, use much more water than preparing these grains for a side dish or to be included in recipes such as quinoa salad.
Wheat has a very long history in the West as a breakfast porridge. The grains would be cracked, toasted or ground, then boiled into porridge. Historically, wheat has been eaten as a porridge as much or more as baked into bread. Beer and spirits began as wheat or barley porridge that may have inadvertently fermented. Granted, a steady diet of wheat and barley porridge was probably boring and, of course, contains gluten. Gluten is a set of proteins that a small minority of individuals can’t tolerate at all (celiac disease) and that can gradually cause inflammation problems in a much larger proportion of the population (gluten sensitivity).
Nonetheless, if it can be tolerated, wheat is very useful as porridge for convalescence. Its energetic is very tonifying, it is a strong food, a food that strengthens us. The best use of wheat is short term, when the benefits of its tonifying properties outweigh the problems from gluten. In particular, wheat porridge helps build and hold blood, useful as dietary support for blood deficiency with fatigue or lethargy. Once benefit has been seen, return to rotating grains to avoid problems from overeating one.
Bulgar and couscous are made from wheat. Spelt and Kamut (khorasan) are early, pre-hybridized wheats—they do contain gluten but are significantly easier to digest. Individuals with celiac can not eat them, but individuals with wheat or gluten sensitivity often can.
Oats, as an herbalist friend and I were recently discussing, have a more complicated history than their popularity today would suggest. Until quite recently they were more available in apothecaries and pharmacies than in food shops. In apothecaries they were often mixed into topical plasters. Oats were used for their soothing quality: internally for soothing digestion and externally to soothe skin conditions with creams and poultices.
In Chinese Medicine dietetics, oats are classified as sticky, as are glutinous grains, but they don’t technically contain gluten. The bulk fiber in oats promotes peristalsis while the stickiness balances this with some restraining quality. They are simultaneously cleansing and building. Further, oats, like rice and millet, are considered moistening grains (wheat and rye are somewhat drying, although far less so in a porridge than as bread or pasta.)
Rolled oats are more soothing and sticky while steel cut oats are less sticky but a bit harder to digest (that is, they are nourishing if digestion is robust but will weaken an already weak digestion). As with all grains, the more fiber they contain the more difficult to handle if digestion is weak.
Avoid instant oats and avoid cooking oats in milk (adds to their sticky quality and reduces their benefit). If cooking-in-milk is desired, select long-grain rice and cook on the wet side first with water then add milk to finish cooking by baking in the oven along with digestive spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander, and a tiny bit of sweetener. This is the dish Buddha received to regain strength after his enlightenment and physical collapse—he ate only this, one bowl per day, courtesy of a local shepherdess who had found him collapsed under the bodhi tree.
Cook oats and oatmeal long enough to allow the grains to absorb as much water as they will, then add enough more to adjust consistency to be on the wet side (many people serve them too dry). Add nuts such as sliced almonds, walnuts, etc, seeds like pepitas, sunflower, etc, dried fruit such as raisins, apricot, prune, fig, and spices such as cinnamon. Most people add a bit of sweetener, honey, maple syrup, barley malt, etc., but be sparing with sweet syrups.
With oats the thing to discern is whether the stickiness is appropriate or not. If not, use millet or buckwheat porridge. The fiber in oats makes them useful to treat stagnation, but some care has to be taken to insure the stickiness and relative difficulty in digestion can be tolerated. When in doubt, rotate grains, but do include wet-cooked porridges and congee to the morning menu. It’s one of the simplest and most powerful things we can do to take care of ourselves. Delicious, too.