Singapore has a pretty amazing history and story of development. We’ll probably talk about it one day (or over several days, so I don’t bore you all too badly), but you’ll be relieved to know that today is not that day.
Today, we’ll just spend 0.3462 seconds (precisely – so read fast!) on a small piece of that history, from 1819-1965, when Singapore was a British colony. Specifically, we shall focus on how, in those 147 years, the Chinese and the Brits never once sat down to develop a shared definition of porridge. [I mean, seriously – it’s not like they were busy building up – and subsequently defending – a massive trading port or anything…] The result of this oversight was, as I have dramatically named it, The Great Porridge Confusion of 2007. Read on:
When I was growing up (in the US), “porridge” was something that appeared exclusively in Goldilocks and the Three Bears. At home, what we ate was called oatmeal. But heck, somewhere along the way, someone must have explained to me that “porridge” was, essentially, British for oatmeal. I lived with this happy world-view until my first trip to Singapore in 2007. Whenever we traveled to Singapore for a visit, we’d stay with KMN’s parents, who generously provided as much room and board as we needed. One afternoon during my first visit, we sat down for lunch together. His Mom had prepared “porridge”.
My Brain: “Huh?!?! I thought I was the only one who knew that oatmeal could be eaten as breakfast, lunch, or dinner. But they’re going to have oatmeal for lunch! Oh my word, I’ve only been dating him for 6 months, but I already feel like I belong in this family. Oatmeal for lunch, WHOOoooooo…..”
My excitement quickly faded as I was asked to please carry the scallions, fried shallots, and fried bread pieces over to the table, to top the porridge. I began to suspect that something was amiss, and so I wasn’t totally surprised when KMN’s Mom mentioned that we should make sure we got some prawns when we scooped our porridge. All right, then, it was confirmed – we certainly weren’t going to be eating fruits/nuts/honey topped oatmeal. So what were we eating? Well, fast-forward to a discussion I had with KMN in private, after lunch…
Me: “So..ummm…Chinese porridge….It’s not oatmeal, is it?”
KMN: “Hahaha! No, it’s definitely not oatmeal. Oatmeal?!?! Why would porridge be oatmeal?” [My husband has an incredible ability to only think about food and food names in one cultural context at a time. This has resulted in more than one frustrating/hilarious conversation.]
Me: “Uh…I think the western world considers ‘porridge’ to be made from oats. But Chinese porridge is just….really, really super over cooked rice, isn’t it?”
KMN: “Yup! And it’s so good, isn’t it??”
And there you have it, folks. Chinese porridge (also called congee) is soupy, mushy rice, lightly salted and often served with a bit of meat (shrimp, ground pork). It can be garnished with scallions, fried shallots and/or fish cakes.
To be frank, the appeal of this dish eluded me for a few more years – but slowly, I’ve grown to accept it, like it, and appreciate its place in Chinese cuisine. It’s also an easy (theoretically), economical meal that stretches a small amount of ingredients a long way. It’s also like the chicken soup of Chinese cooking. It’s a dish that gives KMN warm fuzzies, and what he was fed when he was sick. It’s comfort food. But I guess…when put that way…maybe it’s not so different from oatmeal, after all.
Now, I’d originally started this post to describe the ups and downs of my various attempts to make this supposedly simple dish. But I’ve already babbled on for far too long (Word Count: 650, ’cause I know you were wondering). So the photo on the right will have to do for now, and you’ll just have to stop back soon for the rest of the story…
What’s your vote: Chinese porridge, or British porridge??