Pickles and Tea Adventures in Asian American Cooking

Congee as Comfort Food

congee, jook

Can you spot Isaac's mop of black hair looming at the top right corner in the first photo? "I ... must ... touch ... congee ..."

The last few weeks have been exhausting. I’ve been sick twice in three weeks (once with a gastro-intestinal virus and am now recovering with maybe strep and/or a sinus infection), and my two illnesses bookended my little man’s bout with a stomach virus (yet again). Ever since Isaac started daycare in August, it’s been a neverending series of maladies at our house. So please forgive me for not posting until now.

Thankfully, I’m well-prepared when it comes to feeding the sick, whether my son, husband, or myself. My go-to dish is my mom’s congee, called ‘bubur’ in Indonesian, also known as jook (粥) or rice porridge. And it’s so easy to make, I can even fend for myself when I’m under the weather.

Just like chicken (noodle) soup is nature’s universal penicillin, congee is the Asian equivalent, a comforting bowl of goodness to nurse your ailing loved one back to health. Rice is left to simmer on the stove with water, chicken and aromatics until it is transformed into a velvety, smooth porridge that not only clears the sinuses but also nourishes the body.

There are countless ways to make congee, depending on what you have at home.

My mom likes to use broken jasmine rice, and yes, the grains are literally broken. She says that the congee cooks quicker and comes out silky smooth without as much effort. Experts will tell you the more frequently you stir the congee, the faster the rice grains will break down, making for a smoother porridge. Any rice you have at home—from sushi rice to brown rice (maybe not basmati because it is quite brittle but tell me if I’m wrong)—will work. You just might have to adjust the amount of water or cooking times.

I always have a stash of chicken bones in my freezer for making stock and for occasions such as these. If you like roasting chicken, save the carcass. When the time comes, dump it into a pot with all the necessary ingredients, and you’ll soon have a bubbling pot of congee big enough to feed the whole family … for days! Ditto with a turkey carcass. Turkey congee is a great morning-after-Thanksgiving breakfast especially if you have a contingent of guests to feed.

One of my favorite things about congee is the garnishes. I add a trickle of sesame oil, followed perhaps by some kecap manis (Indonesian sweey soy sauce), depending on my mood. Then I sprinkle my bowl with fried garlic, fried shallots (both these can be made at home or buy them at an Asian market), Tianjin preserved vegetables (basically salted cabbage), and green onions, after which I delight in mixing everything together. Even when I’m sick I don’t lose my affinity for flavor.

Front to back: green onions, fried garlic, fried shallots, Tianjin preserved vegetables

Personally, I don’t just reserve congee for when I’m sick. I can eat congee anytime: for breakfast, on a chilly winter’s day or whenever I miss my mom and her cooking. When I’m not sick, I tend to go crazy with the toppings. I’ll add barbecue pork, dried scallops, century egg (pei dan, 皮蛋), leftover roast chicken, pork floss, pickles, etc., etc. Sometimes, I’ll crack a raw egg into my steaming bowl of congee and stir continuously, allowing the inherent heat to cook the egg.

We all have favorite foods that make us feel better when we aren’t well. What food gives you comfort when you are sick?


Chicken Congee (Bubur Ayam)

Congee with fried shallots and green onions

If you don’t already have cooked rice in your fridge, use 1 1/2 cups of uncooked rice (I usually have jasmine rice at home). You’ll have to extend the cooking time to 1-1/2 to 2 hours but you’ll still be rewarded with a bowl of yummy goodness that is soothing both spiritually and physically. If I have some on hand, I also like to add small cubes of sweet potato toward the end of cooking to add sweetness and texture to the final dish.

Time: 1 hour or so
Makes: 4 servings

2 cups cooked white rice
5 cups water
1/2 pound chicken bones or 2 chicken thighs
3, 1/4-inch-thick slices fresh ginger
1 plump clove garlic, smashed
1 green onion, tied into a knot
1/4 of a whole yellow or red onion
Soy sauce, salt, and white pepper to taste
Sesame oil and/or kecap manis for drizzling (optional)

Shredded chicken meat (from the thighs above or leftovers)
Green onions, chopped
Fried garlic
Fried shallots
Tianjin preserved vegetables (tong chai)

In a medium pot, combine the rice, water, chicken bones, ginger, garlic, green onion, onion and bring to a boil over high heat. Skim off any scum or foam that rises to the surface.

Reduce heat to low and cover. Simmer for 1 hour, stirring occasionally so that the rice doesn’t stick to the bottom of pot and burn. If using chicken thighs, remove them after 20 minutes and scrape off the meat and shred or chop. Set the meat aside and return the bones to the pot. Continue cooking for another 40 minutes or so.

When the rice grains are swollen and the mixture is as thick as oatmeal, the congee is ready. If it gets too thick, add more water. If it’s too thin, cook it until it reaches the desired smoothness and thickness.

Remove the bones, ginger, garlic, green onion and onion. Add soy sauce, salt, and white pepper to taste.

Ladle into individual bowls, drizzle with sesame oil and/or kecap manis, and garnish as desired.


Here are more ideas for nourishing comfort foods:
Cambodian Herb-Scented Chicken Soup (S’ngao Chruok Moan)
Oma’s Chicken Soup
Lemongrass Steamed Fish


  • Hi…Thank you so much for the pingback…its a rare honor for me…you have a wonderful blog!!!

    • Pat

      Thanks, Nors. Arroz caldo is not as well known as congee/jook so I thought I’d highlight it. Thanks for stopping by! Cheers, Pat

  • Thanks for the pingback. I love jook.

    • Pat

      You are most welcome, Gary! I enjoyed your step-by-step procedure for making jook. Cheers, Pat

  • Oh definitely congee when people are sick in my family, too. That and a Chinese herbal chicken soup, though less commonly.
    Just want to add that your book is great; I learned a lot from it. Thank you!

    • Pat

      Hi William,
      Oh, I definitely prefer congee to an herbal chicken soup regardless of how quickly it will heal me! Thanks for stopping by and I’m so glad you enjoy my cookbook. Feel free to ask any questions. Cheers, Pat

  • Sandra

    Oh, well I hope you are feeling better. In regards to congee, I love the stuff!!! I eat it even when I’m not sick. It makes for a light meal accompanied with some savory dishes. Sometimes I have it instead of rice!

    • Pat

      Thanks, Sandra. I am getting better. Like you, I could eat congee anytime! I hope you enjoy making it at home too. Cheers, Pat

  • Tuty

    I hope you are feeling better by now. Bubur Ayam is the best. I love both the Chinese version and the “abang-abang” version with the yellow sauce, kecap manis, chinese celery, lots of shallots, toasted soy beans, and sliced cha kwee. Ultimate breakfast for me :-))

    • Pat

      Hi Tuty, How are you? It’s good to hear from you! I’m all better now, thanks for asking. Ohhh, yu cha kway is the best! It’s so hard to find fresh ones here so I hardly ever have it with my congee. But thanks for the memories. Cheers, Pat

  • I must admit that I’m less of a fan of congee compared to some folks here. Maybe my mother made boring congee. Yes, she did sometimes use a meat or veggie stock. She didn’t make congee often. After all, cooking lots of rice for 6 children, it got eaten up. She wasn’t going to move to the next stage of cooked rice put into other dishes, except maybe for stir-fried rice.

    But the most fun congee to me was congee made from the rice crusts at the bottom of the pot. Toasty tasting and nice!

    • Pat

      Hi Jean, I’ve never had congee made from the crusty rice at the bottom of the pot. That’s fascinating, I’ll have to try it. For many people congee is comfort food because of the feel-good emotions associated with the experience of eating it as well as how it tastes. I know some people who aren’t fans either. I have to say it’s what goes on top that makes a good bowl of congee for me. Thanks for stopping by! Cheers, Pat

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  • Karen

    Sorry you’ve been ill – hope you’re well now. We’ve been thru the business of grandchildren bringing home all kinds of lovely yuckiness from pre-school, etc. to share with their parents and us…

    I grew up on “Jewish Penicillin” – my involvement with Chinese cooking started about 50 yrs ago when I was in High School – most of my friends were Chinese or Japanese.

    About 15 years ago I discovered the joy of jook! I love it and now regularly make it especially when I’m not feeling well. My ABC friends can’t get over some of the cooking I do… Like buying a roast pig head and trotters from a Chinese bbq deli and making jook from that – Yum!

    • Pat

      Hi Karen,
      I’m all better, thank you!
      The link between Jewish and Chinese cooking is a strong one :). Hah, I love that you enjoy pig heads and trotters. I must admit that I’m not fond of them though I do enjoy equally outrageous body parts such as pig’s blood and tripe when prepared well. Lovely of you to stop by! Cheers, Pat

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  • Renee

    I cannot thank you enough for this congee recipe. I was sick years ago and congee was the recommended cure. I loved it, ate it as often as I could. Now I live in a different neighborhood and can’t find any but I have been trying for awhile to make some. There have been hits and misses but I will try this now … Thank you!

    • Pat

      Hi Renee, Congee is so easy to make, I do it myself even when I’m stuffed up and bleary-eyed. I hope you’ll like it!

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  • Yvonne Fernandes

    Thanks for sharing… it was the best Congee have made to date… it was yummy!

  • Just made your recipe and followed it to a T including your garnish recommendations and dropping in raw eggs. It’s FANTASTIC! Everyone in the house is sick, yet our toddlers are gobbling down every morsel. Thank you!

  • cg

    hi. can you make this in a sow cooker? and if so how long do you think it should cook for? thank you!

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  • j martin

    I sympathize with you at that point in life. I went thru my 2nd bout of illnesses when my kids were between 3 and 6. Kids pick up germs like summer clothes pick up dirt! They’re building up their immunity and ours is down. Your Mom’s idead to use broken Jasmine is perfect! On another site, the author used 1/2 Jasmine & 1/2 long grain and he was very satisfied with the results.
    To eg, yes you can cook it in a slow cooker. Check on line as others have made it that way. This is NOT a fussy dish to make (unless using a gas/propane stove)

  • Jeff

    My local Asian market has quarts and pints of jook, to go, on week ends. Very good but there are lumps of a brown, soft slippery ingredient in it that I can’t identify. It has a mild pleasant taste. There is a bit of a language problem so I’m in the dark. Anyone know what it might be? I have had jook in a number of places and even made it and I’ve never seen this before.

    • Pat

      Hmm, they could be pickled or preserved vegetables, Jeff. If you send me a photo I might be able to identify them. But I can’t tell you off the bat!

  • R

    Hi, Whats the best way to store and reheat congee? And how long will it keep?

  • Angeline

    I loved the recipe. I ran short of time though. So I used a pressure cooker to cook. My 1 yr old son loved it, my 6 yrs old daughter gobbled it up, I’m pretty sure that my eldest daughter & hubby would be equally thrilled once they get home & I have felt renewed enough to sit at the computer long enough to type a review for one of the easiest & healthiest dishes I have loved making. It took me abt 30 mins to be done including getting the garnishes ready. Thanks Pat.

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  • Filed Under

    October 28, 2011
    Comfort food
    • Posted By

      Born in Indonesia and raised in Singapore, Pat Tanumihardja writes about food, travel, and lifestyle through a multicultural lens. Pat especially enjoys covering topics that converge on food, history and culture and has been published in numerous international, national and regional publications. Her cookbook, The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook—Home Cooking from Asian American Kitchens is a treasury of family recipes and stories spanning over a dozen Asian cultures.

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