A beginner's guide to congee
What's so great about Shanghai congee? And, maybe more importantly, why is the city so obsessed with its various pickled accompaniments?
The path to understanding the local love for congee, an iconic Chinese breakfast food, starts with a piping hot, homemade bowl of rice soup, variously called congee, porridge or zhou (粥).
And what better time to try than during a Shanghai winter morning? Contrary to popular belief, congee doesn't take hours of grandmotherly patience and stirring to prepare.
Here, we'll share a 10-minute recipe for Shanghai congee that you can easily prepare before heading to work as well as a breakdown of the various jiang cai -- pickled vegetables -- and congee accompaniments you'll find at the local supermarket to spicy up your bowl.
Quick Shanghai congee
(Makes approximately three servings)
- 1/2 cup of rice, washed
- Flavorings of choice (good choices are sliced fish, ginger and green onion, XO sauce, chicken broth sugar and Kabocha pumpkin)
- Accompaniments ingredients (for good choices, see next page)**
- **For all additional ingredients, make sure you slice or dice them finely due to the short cooking time of this congee.
- Begin the night before. In a bowl of rice, add enough water to submerge all the rice. There should be half an inch of water over the rice.
- Place bowl in the fridge overnight.
- In the morning, drain the rice.
- Add the rice and three cups of drinking water into a pot. (Ratio of rice to water should be 1:6.).
- Add additional flavorings or ingredients.
- Cook until the mixture boils. The congee should be ready in 10-15 minutes.
(Click "Next" for a the most popular congree accompaniments.)
A guide to Shanghai congee accompaniments
1. Pressed mustard greens (榨菜)
For breakfast, a cheap breakfast accompaniment you'll often see is zha cai, a breakfast pickle made by dehydrating mustard stems, brining them in a pickling mixture and then pressing the juices from the vegetable.
Besides being eaten with porridge, zha cai is incorporated in local soup and Shanghai noodle dishes.
Try the RMB 1 大哥大 (Da Ge Da) packets of zha cai from just about any local supermarket.
With a name that translates to "yellow mud snails," we accept that this isn't the most appetizing sounding congee additive, but trust us, it works.
Huang ni luo are fleshy river snails with transparent shells that are cleaned and marinated raw in a brine of salt, sugar and rice wine. Find them in jars -- small to family-size -- in the freezer aisle of your local supermarket.
Although you can get slightly cheaper huang ni luo at your local wet market as well, most Shanghainese swear by Ting Top's jarred variety for a compromise between flavor and hygiene. Expect chewier mollusks in a rather sweet rice wine brine.
3. Spicy bamboo shoots
The jars of tender white bamboo suspended in red chili oil don't taste nearly as radical as they appear in the container. This is the lightest breakfast pickle you can purchase.
For a good Shanghai congee mix, make sure the strips you buy are crunchy, slightly spicy and fresh-tasting, not strongly pickled with other flavors at all.
Try the Tomo Food's variety for a tasty, but mild version of spicy bamboo shoots.
4. Salted duck egg
Ever passed by individually vacuum-packed eggs in the supermarket? Those are salted duck eggs you're looking at, and they go with go with congee like grits go with butter. That's a good thing.
A good salted duck egg is distinguished by an oily, crumbly yellow-orange yolk, but is far better than it sounds.
Just one egg can add a lot of flavor to a plain bowl of Shanghai congee with its salty-yet-creamy oil and yolk, regularly taking the spotlight off of even the most delicious breakfast pickles.
In our experience, the pricier the duck eggs, the better the yolks. If you're selecting individual eggs, try picking the heaviest eggs for the best results.
5. Whole pickled garlic
Whole pickled garlic, despite its stink, is an increasingly popular congee accompaniment due to its umami flavor. Although the packaged variety is available, Tesco and Carrefour both sell tastier, freshly pickled garlic bulbs.
A representative at Zhenning Lu Tesco says that the slightly crunchy, sweet and salty garlic is one of the best sellers in breakfast pickles section.
Each bulb comes with the papery outer skin still attached, but edible after marination. The spiciness of raw garlic is countered by the brine, but the stink still lasts forever.
Try a bite with some plain Shanghai congee on a relaxing weekend in. Your fellow subway commuters will thank you for saving this one until after the work week commute.
(Click "Next" for five move congree breakfast options.)
6. Marinated daikon (酱萝卜）
The best marinated daikon tend to be found in grandmothers' houses, not in supermarkets.
If you're lacking a locally based grandmother though, try making your own by slicing raw daikon into a bowl and marinating with vinegar, soy sauce and sugar for two days. The resulting pickle should be sweet, saucy and very crunchy.
7. “Pagoda” vegetable (宝塔菜)
Have you ever tried caterpillars for breakfast? Just kidding. When you first see bao ta root in the supermarket though, you might think it's a bug -- each inch-long piece of root looks like a cross between a caterpillar and a miniature Michelin man's arm -- but it's not, no worries.
Despite the veggie's shape, it tastes like your average soy marinated pickle, with a texture reminiscent of broccoli stalks. Try the Simei brand version.
Unlike most of the Shanghai congee accompaniments on our list, these green beans tend towards hot and sour rather than super salty.
They'd be right at home on a big bowl of Guilin meifen.
The chopped green beans are brined in a mixture of vinegar and salt, and then flecked with lots of chili sauce to make the perfect combination of spicy and sour. And they keep forever.
Lovers of kimchi will also appreciate these sour broad beans found in most supermarkets.
The most classic breakfast pickle of all, the best pickled cucumbers come in coils.
The softened vegetable is saturated with soy sauce and sugar, and just a slices is enough to flavor a bowl of congee.
According to a local shopper and home chef, Ding Jia, the best pickled pickles and marinated daikon are made in Jiu Ting, a suburb of Shanghai -- although you can buy them in your local food shop as well. If you're looking for an excuse for a day trip, this is a reason to head out of the city for a day.
The taste of this flavored, fermented bean curd is somewhere between bleu cheese and miso.
Fermented bean curd is pungent, incredibly salty and creamy and like wine, it gets better with time. That's a good thing, since just a small, ice-cube sized block of fulu can take a week to eat -- it's that salty.
For most people, a dab of fulu will be enough.
Fulu isn't special by itself, but transformative when eaten with a bowl of congee. Our favorite kind is the red fulu, the color indicating that it is flavored with Chinese ham.