Congee is casual comfort on a chilly winter evening, or the perfect morning balm if you happened to overdo it the night before. (New Year's Day brunch, anyone?)
Wintertime entertaining has a reputation for being a celebration of excess, but having friends over for a cozy, nurturing meal is a lovely change of pace. Serving congee is the ultimate way to send guests home feeling nourished — rather than preparing for a day of recovery.
It may feel a little odd for the main event of a party to be a pot of porridge, but it's only the beginning. Think of it like polenta or even pizza — a deliciously simple foundation ready and waiting for personalized flourishes. Indeed, the fun part of a congee party is setting out a spread of toppings to let everyone pick and choose what they like for their own bowlful of goodness. (This is usually quickly followed by a return trip to the pot to try what someone across the table declared to be "the ultimate combo.")
As the host, either load the table up yourself or suggest guests bring their favorites. Regardless of which way you decide to go, the casual and interactive nature of a spoonful of this, a ladleful of that is a natural way to get conversation going between everyone at the table.
How to make congee
Congee hardly needs a recipe and is nearly impossible to mess up. Jasmine rice is traditionally used for its fragrance. Simmer it on the stovetop for an hour or two and keep it warm over a low flame. The "correct" ratio of water for congee is dependent on individual taste, but ranges around 1:6 to 8 of rice to water. When serving a crowd, it's helpful to keep it a little on the thicker side. Have a kettle of hot water ready for guests to thin it out as they like. (It's also the perfect way to accommodate unexpected drop-ins — just stir a little water into the pot!)
At its core, congee only needs rice and water, but upping the flavor ante is never a bad idea, especially when you're celebrating. Keep it vegan with dried mushrooms and fresh ginger, or fortify the pot with chicken stock, Chinese sausage, or chicken or pork bones. A particularly luxe version can be packed with fresh or dried seafood like shrimp or scallops.
How to top your congee
Pork belly feels like a special-occasion food, the perfect way to top off your dinner. Braise it in soy sauce to lean into the soft slurpability of your meal. Or go for a crispy roasted version to play up the different textures.
Poach a whole chicken in your slow cooker ahead of time for hands-off ease. Chill it and pull it from the bone before serving. Or to make things easier, just grab a store-bought rotisserie chicken and shred it, setting the skin aside for another use, like gribenes.
Chinese sausage (lap cheong) is often part of the primary congee pot. But if you'd like to keep the base meat-free, stir fry some lap cheong for people to add to their bowls as they please.
A crispy, runny fried egg on a bowl of congee is a beautiful thing, but it's not the most efficient move when you've got a houseful of people. Set out a bowl of jammy eggs — eggs cooked for six or so minutes — instead. If you've got the time, steep the eggs in soy sauce or tea. The century egg is also an especially flavorful (but pungent!) option.
Cold silken tofu is a lovely contrast to the hot porridge. Sticky-sweet tofu char siu appeals to vegetarians and meat eaters alike. Or just cube up store-bought braised tofu for an easy topping.
There are lots of different directions to go here. Think: Spicy, garlicky eggplant (with or without pork), chilled Chinese broccoli salad, soy preserved shiitake mushrooms, Sichuanese dry-fried green beans, braised leafy greens, and simply steamed bok choy. Or riff on these braised green onions; just swap in a 1:1 mix of neutral oil and sesame oil for the butter and skip the herbs for a flavor profile more suited to the meal.
Don't miss out on classic toppings like pork floss, garlic chips, and fried shallots. (Fry up the shallots yourself, or reach for that can of fried onions you never opened on Thanksgiving.) Finishing with a little freshness is also the way to go. Make sure you've got heaps of chopped fresh green onions and cilantro, plus extra julienned fresh ginger.
Candy peanuts in sugar and five-spice powder for crunch. Or treat them like the legume they are and braise them until tender in bacon and soy sauce.
Finally, open up bottles and jars: Sprinkle on some white- or Szechuan pepper, five-spice, or a touch of MSG. Splash on soy sauce, sesame oil, or black vinegar. You can't go wrong with a little fire from chili crisp, oil, or paste. Pickled mustard greens, fermented tofu, and preserved daikon all add big-time flavor with very little effort.
Congee serving essentials
A bowl that's both deep and wide is perfect for congee. This set includes chopsticks and Chinese soup spoons, rounding out everything you need.
You can also choose to go a little smaller, allowing guests to fill up their bowls several times with different toppings. They're also a nice size for the toppings bar.
A set of ramekins and condiment bowls makes it easy to ensure you have enough small dishes for garnishes.
Chance of unexpected guests? No problem. While this rice cooker is certainly not necessary for congee, it has a porridge button you simply push, walk away, and return to your meal.
No rice cooker? A heavy pot or Dutch oven is a perfectly lovely way to simmer and serve to your guests.