Healing Century Egg and Pork Congee (Pidan Shourou Zhou, 皮蛋瘦肉粥)
Congee, An Old Buddhist Remedy~~
When you find yourself tired or ailing, let this 皮蛋瘦肉粥 (pídàn shòuròu zhōu), century-egg and lean-pork congee, restore you. A thick suspension of pearl rice made creamy by time and preserved egg yolk, pidan shourou zhou is the most lavish of peasant (and monk) fare. The benefits are manifold for those who consume and proffer zhou—in ancient 10th-century Buddhist texts, the monk 義楚 Yichu describes the blessings of both eating and giving the gift of congee¹.
Although my parents both grew up eating what they called 稀饭 (xīfàn), literal “thin/diluted rice” more akin to rice soup than the thick congee popular in Chinatowns nowadays, it’s zhou that taught me love for all porridge.
It’s like this: Xifan was poor man’s gruel, a plight for leftover or limited rice to make it last even longer. One part rice, one hundred parts water (or so it seems)—the true taste of childhood in Mao’s revolutionary China. Ma’s craving for plain xifan to this day once meant many weekend mornings slurping soupy rice with pork floss and 榨菜 (zhàcài).
But zhou, upon my first encounter with it in Beijing, was intentional porridge, a luscious white lie willing to cover up the truth about hard times. Porridge, but make it fashion! Dressed with pickles, small cuts of lean meat, 皮蛋 (pídàn) in each bowl, every time, instead of just special occasions. Seasoned, even? This was thrilling to me, child who had never experienced porridge that wasn’t watery, thin xifan.
There are many ways to cook down rice and water, but this is my personal method. Its ensuing thickness is redolent of Beijing. My roommates crave it. More than one ex has requested the recipe. My sister, international jetsetter back from business school on winter break and the pickiest eater I’ll cook for, returned for seconds.
My Beijing friends call it zhou, my Cantonese friends call it jūk, my Vietnamese friends call it cháo, my Korean friends call it juk, and every single one of them loves this porridge.*
The secret to my version is more ginger and scallion than you think necessary. Oftentimes I’ll make it with some of the leftover chicken stock from poaching Hainanese chicken, replacing the lean pork with the gently poached chicken meat as well, and less frequently I’ll save the ginger-scallion oil for dressing too. Poached chicken congee is actually my #1 favorite congee of all time. But even without these extra measures, this congee will come through for you.
Begin with one cup of short- or medium-grain pearl rice (not glutinous/sticky rice) or similar. Short-grain rices contain more branched amylopectin starch molecules and fewer non-gelatinizing amylose starch molecules than firm long-grain rices like jasmine or basmati (but not nearly as little amylose as glutinous rice). This makes it susceptible to thickening without becoming fully sticky. I use Kokuho Rose (the red bag), considered medium-grain, and it works great.
Wash and rinse the rice up to two times, and then let it soak in cold water for about 30 minutes. Use the time to slice a fat thumb (maybe even a knob) of ginger into thin matchsticks, and then throw everything (rice, water/stock, ginger) in a covered Dutch oven or other wide, heavy-bottom pot. Bring the pot to a boil over high heat, then simmer gently for an hour with the lid slightly cracked so it doesn’t bubble over (important).
*Lisa Lim of the South China Morning Post writes that the Western name, “congee,” is actually borrowed from “Tamil kanji (also the Telugu and Kannada gañji, the Malayalam kanni and the Urdu ganji), from kanjī (“boilings”), referring to the water in which rice has been cooked.”
Once the pot is simmering away merrily, prepare the meat and other add-ins. You can use minced meat, but I prefer the more tender slivers from pork shoulder. Chinese cooks tend to prefer this section of 前腿肉 (qiántuǐ ròu), foreleg meat, for mincing meat and slivering. The meat slivers should be about the width of a matchstick to cook through almost instantly (see above photo).
In a small bowl, mix three ounces of slivered pork shoulder with 1/4 teaspoon of salt and half an egg white, stirring continuously in one direction. This helps “起粘性 (qǐ niánxìng),” add viscosity.
Add 1/2 teaspoon of 料酒 (liàojiǔ), cooking rice wine, to purify the raw meat flavor. The liaojiu in Chinese kitchens is often a derivative of 黄酒 (huángjiǔ), yellow rice wine, such as the omnipresent Shaoxing huadiao.
Lastly, add 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper and 1 teaspoon of sweet potato starch. Sweet potato starch absorbs more moisture than potato starch, but if you don’t have it just use whatever starch is on hand.
After about an hour of cooking, I start stirring more often as it thickens. Between 60-90 minutes of cooking, the congee progresses from typical rice porridge (à la your favorite dimsum restaurant) to the clumpy pidan shourou zhou mess I love. Beyond 90 minutes, it can start to get a little too thick even for me.
Depending on how you like your century egg, add it with the scallion whites up to 10 minutes before the congee is done cooking. The longer you cook (and stir) the century egg, the more it disintegrates into the congee. I like whole chunks of the egg, so I cook it anywhere from 5 minutes on the heat or off of it in the residual heat.
Whatever you do, once your congee has thickened to your liking, turn off the heat, then stir in the slivered pork meat. The thin, lean slices cook quickly in the residual heat and stay tender this way.
Season to taste with extra salt and any other favorite toppings, like pork floss and zhacai pickled mustard greens or fermented beancurd or homemade chili oil, of course. Serve pidan shourou zhou piping hot and garnish with the green ends of the scallions.
From the famous Buddhist liturgy “粥有十利”, “Porridge Has Ten Benefits,” from Yichu’s 10th-century manuscript 釋氏六帖, Shishi liutie:
“Giving congee to the saṅgha secures ten beneficial merits: (1) [healthful] appearance, (2) strength, (3) longevity, (4) joy, (5) eloquence, (6) removal of undigested foods and (7) of wind [pathologies], (8) [elimination of] hunger and (9) of thirst, and (10) [benefits to] digestion.”
Source: Toleno, Robban. “The Celebration of Congee in East Asian Buddhism.” Journal of Chinese Buddhist Studies, vol. 30 (July 2017): 125-168.
For more homestyle Chinese comfort food dishes, try Kathy’s ma’s Clarified Old Hen Soup (Dunjitang, 炖鸡汤) and Sichuan Chili Oil Wontons (Hongyou Chaoshou, 红油抄手)!
Century Egg and Pork Congee (Pidan Shourou Zhou, 皮蛋瘦肉粥)
- 210 grams short- or medium-grain rice approx. 1 cup, I use Kokuho Rose
- 20 grams ginger, sliced into thin matchsticks
- 1200 grams water approx. 5 cups
- 720 grams homemade chicken/pork broth approx. 3 cups, optional (sub water)
- 3 ounces slivered lean pork, e.g. pork shoulder OR LOIN?
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ½ egg white optional
- ½ teaspoon Shaoxing wine or other liaojiu (rice cooking wine)
- ¼ teaspoon ground white pepper
- 1 teaspoon sweet potato starch or other starch
- 2 century eggs, halved and diced
- 1 whole bunch scallions, washed and minced, divided by light/dark sections
- Wash the rice twice, then let it soak in cold water for about 30 minutes before rinsing and draining. Slice a large thumb of ginger into thin matchsticks. Add the rice, ginger, water and broth (optional) to a covered Dutch oven or other wide, heavy-bottom pot. Stir once. Bring the pot to a boil over high heat, then lower heat and simmer gently for 1 hour with the lid slightly cracked to prevent bubbling over. Do not stir again for the first 30-40 minutes, or the rice will stick more.
- In a small bowl, mix 3 ounces of slivered pork shoulder with ¼ teaspoon of salt and half an egg white (optional), stirring continuously in one direction for one minute. Add ½ teaspoon of Shaoxing wine, ¼ teaspoon ground white pepper and 1 teaspoon of sweet potato starch and stir for another minute.
- After one hour of cooking, start checking for doneness periodically and stir frequently as the congee gelatinizes to prevent sticking. Depending on how you like your century egg, add it with the scallion whites up to 10 minutes before the congee is done cooking. The longer you cook (and stir) the century egg, the more it disintegrates into the congee. The scallion whites withstand heat better, and contribute to the flavor once cooked a bit.
- Once the congee has thickened to your liking, turn off the heat, then stir in the slivered pork meat. The thin, lean slices cook quickly in the residual heat and stay tender this way. Serve piping hot and garnish with the green ends of the scallions.