In the west, we frequently view our food and our medicine as two separate entities. Often we eat simply to fill a hunger void or particular craving, and do not view our food as having possible therapeutic benefit to our bodies. In contrast, many other cultures see their food and their medicine as one in the same. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), congee is a versatile dish to which ingredients can be added for general health, or to address specific nutritional/medicinal needs.
Congee is a simple fare, usually based on rice (though other grains can be used), cooked to the consistency of soup or porridge. Historically it was used as both a popular nutritious meal, as well as a vessel for delivering easy-to-digest medicines to the sick or weakened. Such use was first found in medical volumes discovered in tombs dating to the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE). Later texts from the Tang (618-907 CE) and Song (960-1279 CE) Dynasties also described their extensive use by medical practitioners.
According to TCM, rice has a sweet flavour and neutral property. It is easily accepted by the digestive system, and provides the body with a stable form of nutrient qi (vital energy), while activating and promoting the digestive process. It is interesting that the Chinese symbol for qi (shown above), contains the symbol for rice, and depicts “having rice inside”.
Rice is turned into congee by cooking it with large amounts of water, about 5 to 7 times the amount you would normally use, until it has a thick and even consistency. Consuming it warm makes it immediately available for digestion and absorption, without relatively much work by the digestive system. In addition, because it is cooked with so much water, it provides gentle hydration. TCM considers that the less work the body needs to do to process a food, the more benefit one may gain from it.
The versatility of congee makes culinary possibilities quite numerous and open to the imagination. It is important to note that congees with highly specific medicinal purposes are best left discussed with your healthcare practitioner, before being implemented into your diet.
The following recipe is a simple SEAFOOD CONGEE that can be enjoyed by anyone, at any time of year, as a nutritious and energizing meal. It contains such mild food therapy ingredients as garlic, shallot, and ginger (which may help expel a cold or flu, as well as clear phlegm), shiitakemushrooms (which benefit the immune system), and seaweed (which also helps to clear phlegm). As such, it can be especially great in the cold and flu season!
It can be made vegetarian by omitting the seafood ingredients; or converted to a chicken or pork congee by substituting for the seafood, optionally omitting the seaweed, and using chicken stock instead.
2 cups cooked jasmine rice 6 cups low-sodium vegetable stock 1 tbsp crushed garlic 1 shallot or green onion, sliced small ½” to 1” section of ginger (depending on taste), cut lengthwise into very thin sticks 1 cup sliced shiitake mushrooms 1/2 sheet or less of reconstituted culinary seaweed (such as kombu), cut into very thin 1” strips 1 8oz can of either sliced bamboo shoots or sliced water chestnuts (your preference) 1 small head chopped broccoli 10 pcs baby bok choi, sliced in half lengthwise 1 tbsp light soy sauce 2 tbsp vegetable oil 1 handful chopped fresh cilantro Fresh lime wedges Ground white pepper, sea salt, cayenne pepper, and/or other spices to taste
Seafood – use 1-3 choices (adjust amounts accordingly) from options of: a filet of any whitefish or salmon, cubed approx 1/2lb or so of shrimp/prawns 1 or 2 small tubes of squid, sliced into thin rings Other shellfish (e.g. ½ can clams)
PREPARATION In a soup stock pot, add the pre-cooked rice and stock together with the soy sauce and seaweed, bring to a boil and cook at medium heat for 40 minutes to an hour until the rice has the desired porridge-like consistency. This procedure can vary quite a bit in time depending on the nature of the rice.
After the rice and stock have cooked for at least 20 minutes, in a separate wok or large frying pan, add the garlic, shallots, ginger, shiitake mushrooms, vegetables, and bamboo shoots or waterchestnuts. Stir-fry this mixture for a few minutes until ingredients soften, then add to the cooking rice and stock.
In the same wok, add a bit more oil and stir-fry the seafood ingredients lightly, being careful not to over-cook them. Add this to the cooking congee within the last 5-10 minutes of cooking (helps prevent excessively over-cooking the more delicate seafood ingredients).
Note - if using chicken or pork instead, stir-fry until well done and add to congee earlier.
Serve in bowls garnished with fresh cilantro and green onion. Some also enjoy squeezing a fresh lime wedge over the finished product. Enjoy!
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