Search This Blog

Monday, December 30, 2013

Why congee?

Here's something I tell every single patient that comes into my acupuncture practice: Eat a warm breakfast, every day. Ideally, eat a warm, easily-digestible breakfast: nothing too spicy, too rich, or too sweet.  Some of my patients are already doing this, starting their day with a bowl of steel-cut oats or a poached egg with toast and fruit. Some of my patients eat a "healthy" cold breakfast: cereal with soy or almond milk, say, or a smoothie made with frozen fruit, or yogurt topped with granola.

One of the ways that Chinese nutritional theory differs wildly from its Western counterpart is that Western nutritional theory seems grounded in the idea that we should give our digestive systems lots of strenuous exercise: Put it through its paces! Make it work! Give it lots of roughage and raw stuff! The Chinese approach, on the other hand, is based on the ideas that our digestive system already knows what it's doing, that we should be gentle with it, and that if we are gentle with it, it'll be able to focus its energies on effectively distributing nutrition to the body and efficiently removing waste. In other words, eating easily-digestible foods--especially first thing in the morning, when your digestive system is gradually waking up with the rest of you--will lead to feeling better overall, all the time. 

When I say "overall" I mean it literally. I don't just recommend warm breakfasts to patients who come in with digestive complaints. I recommend it to patients suffering from Achilles tendinitis, clinical anxiety, hay fever, migraines, psoriasis--no matter what system of the body is being challenged, I firmly believe (and am supported by the tenets of Chinese medicine) that a warm and gentle good-morning to your tummy will go a long way towards improved health. By the same token, I believe that those cold breakfasts of smoothies, yogurt or cold cereal--or, even worse, no breakfast at all--will make recovery longer and more difficult.

The ideal breakfast, the one that sets the standard for all warm and easily-digestible breakfasts in Chinese nutritional theory, is congee, also known as jook, zhou, xi fan, and about a hundred other names, depending on where you are. Even though I am pretty certain that nearly everyone could be healthier if they ate a daily breakfast of congee, I rarely talk to my patients about it. Instead, I'll suggest oatmeal, which is still a good option, but not as healthful as congee.

The reason is that I expect my patients, who for the most part people raised with Western foods and palates, to be resistant to the idea of congee--which is, essentially, rice that has been cooked with lots and lots of water, so that it makes a thick porridge. It is absolutely delicious. Unfortunately, "porridge" doesn't sound that appealing. Even less appealing is "gruel" which is another way that congee is often described. Gruel doesn't sound like something you want to eat under any circumstances. Gruel is what they feed unfortunate orphans in stories by Dickens and the brothers Grimm.

But congee is so much more than watered-down rice, so much more than a healthy breakfast, so much more than yet another miraculous food that somebody is telling you is going to change your life. It's the ultimate comfort food. It's a bowl of rich, soothing, unbelievably delicious warmth. It's as crave-worthy as risotto, as consoling as polenta, as variable as soup. (Incidentally, it's also often doctored up to be far from virtuous--and yes, we're totally going to go there, too.)

So I'm writing this blog to practice what I'd like to preach. I'm going to eat congee for breakfast every single day of 2014. It's hardly a sacrifice, as I love the stuff, and it's hard to get sick of something so infinitely variable. Moreover, millions of people around the world are already eating congee for breakfast every day. I'm hoping that by immersing myself in cooking, eating and writing about congee, I'll be better able to talk to patients about this fabulous food; that I'll be a small part of bringing it to the American culinary mainstream; and that I'll be a real, live, glowingly healthy example of the benefits of this traditional Asian breakfast.

Day 1 of my Year of Congee is day after tomorrow. I'm so excited. Looking forward to raising my chopsticks to you and yours in 2014!

Congee made for me by Adam, with chicken, kale, goji berries, and shiitake mushrooms; topped with an egg cooked in coconut oil and--mmm--fried chicken skin.

No comments:

Post a Comment