People often associate porridge with famine food or esculent nourishment for the sick. But in Hong Kong and the Guangdong province in southern China, rice porridge—known as congee or zuk1 (粥)—is a beloved staple. And when it is eaten during the lunar new year celebration, it has added significance: it represents good fortune in the coming year.
It can be a hard concept for some Westerners to wrap their minds around. On several occasions, this writer has been told by his Western friends to take care after they found out he had eaten congee for breakfast – they assumed he wasn’t feeling well. That assumption isn’t entirely out of place. According to the Book of Rites, a collection of texts that lay at the core of the Confucian canon, congee should be given to elders in the eighth month of the Chinese calendar to see them through the height of summer. Sima Qian, an ancient Chinese historian of the early Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), wrote in his Records of the Grand Historian that a respected medical doctor in his time, Chun Yuyi, prescribed a congee recipe for a king to treat his chronic chest pain that other doctors asserted irremediable.
Porridge made with cereal grains, such as rice, maize and barley, is deemed to have medicinal properties, hence becoming an important component of China’s millennia-long culture of dietetic therapy. Even today, contemporary Chinese medicine still believes there is no better way to start a day than a piping hot bowl of congee, because it helps protect people’s stomachs and retain their qi, circulating energy believed to animate bodily functions and maintain the equilibrium in the human body.
As weird as it may sound, whether congee consumption is auspicious or ominous depends entirely on timing. As congee used to be eaten by those who could not afford to buy enough rice, superstition suggests that eating congee on the first day of Lunar New Year could lead to poverty all year round, owing to its association with famine. However, people traditionally consume congee on the seventh day of the new year in the hopes of getting plenty to eat and wear in the following year – an aspiration summed up by the four-character expression fung1 ji1 zuk1 sik6 (豐衣足食), literally “abundant clothes and ample food.” The wordplay here is that congee zuk1 (粥) in Cantonese is uttered the same way as the proverb’s third character (足, meaning “plentiful.”)
Ancient Chinese people assigned the first eight days of the Lunar New Year as a creature’s birthday. On the seventh day—the day of the human being (jan4 jat6 人日, “people’s day”)—seven types of aromatic vegetables, such as garlic shoots, spring onions and Chinese chives, are added to congee, with each signifying a distinctive virtue as a wish for a better year to come. Chinese celery represents diligence, garlic shoots reflect money-consciousness, spring onions are clever, mustard greens resourceful, bok choy the absence of sin, and Chinese onions dexterity.
Some people, especially those living in Guangdong, use pig kidney, liver and duodenum as key ingredients to make pork offal congee (zong6 jyun4 kap6 dai2 zuk1 狀元及第粥, “the top scorer’s congee”) to wish for their kids’ academic success. The congee was so named to pay tributes to a congee stall owner in Guangdong who nourished an impecunious student who later scored the highest in a national examination and later became a literatus in the royal court in the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 AD).
Unlike cha chaan teng, the ubiquitous neighbourhood cafés that offer a multitude of dishes, congee restaurants have remained one of the few local eateries that exclusively serve one main course, with a limited range of fried or steamed side dishes, such as Chinese crullers (jau4 zaa3 gwai2 油炸鬼, “deep-fried ghosts”) or rice noodle rolls (zyu1 coeng4 fan2 豬腸粉, “pig intestine-shaped noodles.”)
For Ko Hung, who has been selling congee for a living for more than three and a half decades, cooking congee is no simple task. “It looks easy to manage, but in fact, there are many things to prepare before you put it on the stove,” says the 59-year-old restaurateur. First, the rice needs to be marinated with salt and oil overnight to ensure they dissolve in the boiling water easily, he exemplifies, while other ingredients have to be cleaned carefully. It is because the congee, which basically consists of water and rice, will otherwise accentuate any impurities in the product and ruin the mouthfeel and flavour, he explains.
While home cooks may prepare plain congee (baak6 zuk1 白粥, “white porridge”) by boiling rice in many times its weight in water until the grains disintegrate to a slurry-like consistency, many professionals make a bouillon, which they pride as a trade secret, as the base. “The best congee has to be cooked long enough so that the rice will break down to a silky, sleek and viscous texture,” Ko explains. “You have to stay attentive. Otherwise, it will stick to the bottom and burn in a split second.”
He says there is an industry term for making sure the congee turns out smooth: bou1 dou3 hei2 gaau1 (煲到起膠), meaning “cook until the glue comes out. It’s easier said than done; the simplest things are usually the hardest to master. “If you put too much rice, the congee will be too gluey, but too little, it will become too watery. The balance between the rice and the liquid must be just right,” says Ko.
Although congee is an everyday, plain, simple food, its role in lunar new year traditions stands in contrast to the richer, fattier delicacies enjoyed in the middle of the 15-day celebration. It’s symbolic, but Ko says it may also serve a practical role: “Maybe it is because congee can help calm an upset stomach after days of festival feasts.”
Where to find a good bowl of congee
(updated 17 January 2023)
Sang Kee Congee Shop
7-9 Burd Street, Sheung Wan, +852 2541 1099
Open Monday–Saturday, 6:30–20:30
Check special opening hours for the Lunar New Year
Law Fu Kee
50 Lyndhurst Terrace, Central, +852 2850 6756
Open Monday–Saturday, 8:30–18:00
Check special opening hours for the Lunar New Year
Tong Shui Hung
30 Man Wui Street, Jordan, Kowloon, +852 2771 4628
Open Wednesday–Monday, 17:00-1:30
Hours may differ for the Lunar New Year
Find out how to prepare a healthy bowl of vegan congee
Learn from Lisa Lin’s food blog Healthy Nibbles.
Photo courtesy by Lisa Lin from @hellolisalin