Do-It-Yourself Porridge: A Work In Progress – Movement Labs

Do-It-Yourself Porridge: A Work In Progress

Yesterday, I popped out for a short run on one of the trails near our apartment:

Holly on a trail at MacRitchie Reservoir

This is just a gratuitous photo, to whet your appetite for more trail pictures. I promise to show you this trail several times a week.  No lie, I will.

Speaking of appetites, let’s get back to the porridge, shall we?   [If you’re confused, check out the first part of the porridge discussion in my last post, What Happens When the Colonizers Don’t Discuss Porridge?]

The Chinese equivalent of America’s Good Housekeeping Cookbook is probably Irene Kuo’s The Key to Chinese Cooking [ref. My Mother-In-Law, et al.].

Irene Kuo, Key to Chinese Cooking, Porridge

In all its shiny glory!

The title is a bit misleading, though, because the book is 532 pages long.  Clearly, there must be more than one key.  Or else, it’s an incredibly long key.  I don’t know what that lock would look like…but I digress.  This tome is actually out-of-print, but KMN managed to secure me a like-new copy this summer.  I’ve only dabbled in it so far, and I’m sure that Mdm. Kuo and I have a long and adventure-full future ahead of us.

But one of the recipes that I have tried is the one for Rice Porridge.  I have long known that porridge is one of KMN’s comfort foods – and let’s be honest – even a progressive, modern feminist wants to be able to cook her husband’s comfort food, right?  Well, this one does, at least. So when the book arrived, I immediately flipped to the index to hunt down the porridge details.  This is taken from the Rice Porridge introduction:

“Known as hsi-fan, ‘thin rice,’ rice porridge is the basis of breakfast for most Chinese…Made by simmering a small quantity of rice with a large amount of water, the resulting rice is a creamy gruel.  The porridge is served in individual bowls with an accompanying assortment of tasty and highly seasoned cold dishes, such as salted and preserved eggs, vegetables, or fish and leftover red-cooked or stir-fried meats and poultry.” [The Key to Chinese Cooking, Irene Kuo]

The recipe looks straightforward:  1/3 cup rice + 4 cups water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and let rice “bounce gently in the bubbling liquid” for 5 minutes to loosen the starch.  Stir.  Cover and simmer for 1 hour.  Serve with whatever garnishes/toppings you choose.

Seems simple enough, right?  Or not.  I’ve tried it three times so far, with varied degrees of (but never complete) success:

Attempt #1: We were still living in the US, and I had just gotten the book.  I was anxious to try the recipe.  I asked KMN what would make good porridge topping.  His reply?  “Anything!”  I took him at his word.  I made a passable but porridge (it only boiled over on the stove once), and topped it with things we already had in the fridge, including chicken sausage and a leftover asparagus saute.   The porridge itself was pretty bland, and the toppings…well, they weren’t especially Chinese.  And the “fusion” concept didn’t translate so well where porridge was concerned.

Porridge with asaparagas sautee and sausage

Even KMN conceded, “OK, maybe ‘anything’ was a bit too broad…”

Attempt #2: After this uninspiring result, I went on a bit of a porridge hiatus.  [OK, we also moved our entire life to Singapore during this time.]  But once we were settled in Singapore, with our pots and pans unpacked, I decided to try again.  Somehow, though, I misread the recipe as 1 cup of rice + 4 cups of water.  Obviously, this didn’t get too soupy, and I essentially ended up making regular rice.  It wasn’t even good steamed rice, though.  For that, I highly recommend a rice cooker.  I’m a total convert and won’t make regular steamed rice any other way anymore.  Also, the rice cooker never boils over.

Attempt #3: I thought that using some chicken stock in place of water might liven up the flavor a bit.  I’d made some stock earlier this week, so decided to use that to try the porridge thing again.  In case you aren’t friends with me on Facebook, here is the status update that accompanied this third pot o’ porridge:

Rice boils over on gas stove

I wasn’t feeling particularly charitable toward the porridge, after it boiled over onto the stove three times…

Starchy boil-over burned onto stove and pot

Burned starch. My fave.

These shenanigans resulted in a stove and pot that looked something like this —>

I mostly blame the stove, and my inexperience with it – even after 2 months.  The flame *does* conspire to either completely halt or dramatically expedite my cooking, I swear.  [Of course, the fact that I was trying to type blog posts, edit photos, and reply to email while cooking dinner was totally unrelated to the boil-overs.]

With much trial and error, and a vented lid, I was able to achieve some semblance of a simmer.  But despite an extra half hour of cooking, I never really achieved “doneness”, as defined be Mdm. Kuo:

My liquid and rice continued to separate.

“The porridge is ready when there is no separation of liquid and rice.”  Never quite got there last night…

Furthermore, my rice grains were still pretty well intact.  They didn’t get as broken apart as I’d hoped, and the mixture wasn’t *quite* as creamy and starchy as the really good porridges I’ve had here.  But, inspired by some porridge I’d had (out) over the weekend, I added a bit of cooked ground pork, then topped the whole thing with scallions and sliced fishcake.  Halfway through slicing the fishcake, I realized I’d cut it along the non-standard axis.  Duh.  Well, I was feeling creative, so I had fishcake circles instead of strips/ovals.  The finished product actually looked pretty good, when served with some sauteed Chinese veggies

Veggie and congee

So really, I can’t complain too much about this third attempt.  The chicken broth gave the porridge a good flavor, and I finally managed to get the “right” kind of Chinese toppings.  I do wish my rice had gotten a bit more creamy, though.  Maybe my problem was the boil overs, or the extra fat in the broth (vs. water), or perhaps the kind of rice I was using.  I think maybe next time, I’ll bring my laptop out into the kitchen while the porridge simmers, to keep an eye on the boiling-over situation…

In conclusion – Thanks, Mdm. Kuo. I promise to practice until I get this right!

Holly & The Key to Chinese Cooking

I will admit, though, given the trouble I’ve had perfecting this recipe, I’m a little nervous nervous about trying anything more complicated than “boil rice and water”!

Do you make rice porridge? What’s your secret?

Any tricks for cleaning burned starch off the stove…?

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  1. Silas January 12, 2013 at 2:25 am - Reply

    I’m not sure from the post, but are you using cooked or uncooked rice? The recipes I have seen call for the previous night’s cooked rice, and if you are using fresh rice, that could make a difference.

    • Holly KN January 12, 2013 at 8:36 am - Reply

      Definitely using uncooked…my recipe definitely calls for uncooked (sorry, should have specified). I think using uncooked is supposed to let the starch release slowly into the liquid, helping to yield a creamy consistency. Don’t know if the same would happen starting with already-cooked rice. In good Chinese tradition, we use our leftover cooked rice to make fried rice! 😉

  2. Christine DeWeaver January 12, 2013 at 9:16 am - Reply

    Holly, your Blog is great. I look forward to your next entry.

    Cooking rice is challenging & doing it on a gas stove is even more so. I still goof up rice after many years of cooking.

    I grew up with a gas stove. The flame adjustment can be treaty. Plus the flame is affected by breezes (we did not have ac in the house).

    • Holly KN January 12, 2013 at 9:23 am - Reply

      Breezes! Yes! I haven’t even gotten to complain about breezes. We have a giant window in our kitchen, and definitely get some flame blowing going on, too! 🙂

      And for every-day rice cooking, I *highly* recommend a rice cooker. You can get a small one pretty cheaply, and once you learn how much rice and water to add, to get the rice to your liking, it’s so. simple, and incredibly consistent. I was hesitant at first, but eventually accepted that Asia knows rice, and most of Asia uses a rice cooker these days!

      Thanks for stopping by! Looking forward to seeing you back often. =)

  3. Wendy January 18, 2013 at 9:53 pm - Reply

    I saw this today and thought of you! Maybe their wooden spoon across the pot trick will solve your boiling over problem?

    • Holly KN January 19, 2013 at 12:41 am - Reply

      Fascinating! Actually, that whole page is. I think the author must have had an abundance of toilet paper rolls. 🙂


  4. Naina January 27, 2013 at 4:25 am - Reply

    Holly I always make my congee using left-over cooked rice. I put the rice along with some chicken stock, pieces of uncooked chicken, 1 tblp rice vinegar, one piece ginger and cook it on low heat for an hour or more stirring often. I keep adding more stock as needed. Once it gets nice and creamy, i put it in a bowl, add some scallions, shredded meat (that was cooked with the rice) and a drizzle of sesame oil. Yumm. I have always made it this way. Never tried making it from uncooked rice probably because I know i’m going to have starchy fluid boil over and also because I like congee more than fried rice. Yours looks so yummy. Keep posting about all your food adventures. I love reading about it.

    • Holly KN January 27, 2013 at 2:19 pm - Reply

      Naina, thanks for taking a few minutes to stop by! Definitely received several suggestions to use cooked rice – and since day-old rice isn’t nearly as nice as fresh rice (I’m in a constant struggle to cook EXACTLY the right amount of rice!), I think I’ll try this next time. About how much (cooked) rice do you suggest for 2 adults?

  5. […] For weeks now, KMN has been talking about cooking a fish.  Like, not a pretty little fillet, but a genuine whole fish.  Now, I have no problem eating a whole steamed fish – this is a common preparation/serving style here.  I’ll discuss how to tackle that in another post one day.  But I’ll admit that I was feeling a bit leery of actually cooking a whole fish.  Growing up, my Mom cooked fillets.  But KMN’s Mom cooked a whole fish.  So I let him take charge – with a little help from Irene Kuo’s The Key to Chinese Cooking (which I’ve written about before, here). […]

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