In America, macaroni and cheese is a classic comfort food. It’s delicious and soothing in part because the high fat content essentially switches our nervous systems to “rest and digest” mode, leaves us longing for bed, a good book and perhaps a chocolate chip cookie (or two) to top things off. In China, congee—a rice porridge often combined with dried fruit, vegetables, poultry or fish—is a beloved comfort food akin to mac and cheese, but one that functions quite differently. Congee’s overcooked rice is easily digested and quickly works to build and bolster our Qi, or vital force, thus providing comfort by supporting our internal well-being. It is an interesting distinction—sedation versus fortification—and one that, when explored, can bring about more healthful food choices and cooking.
Even so, I have found that congee is a hard sell for people with Western sensibilities and taste buds, especially given the common practice of eating the porridge (often with eel) for breakfast. I think the following recipe for Soupy Rice with Lemon and Chicken bridges the gap between the traditions. It satisfies our Western love of nursery food type textures and simplicity and also offers all the nourishment and Qi-building properties of the classic Asian dish. Try it for dinner.
Soupy Rice with Lemon and Chicken
1 3.5 lb (or thereabout) whole chicken
9 cups cold water
2 onions (cut in half)
1 head garlic (cut in half)
2 bay leaves
¾ cups freshly squeezed lemon juice, about 4 lemons
1 1/2 tablespoons coarse sea salt, plus more to taste
1 1/2 cups white long grain rice
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Fresh dill and lemon slices for serving
Rinse chicken under cold water and place in a pot large enough to hold chicken and water. Add water, onions, garlic and bay leaves. Set over high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and let simmer until chicken is fully cooked and liquid flavorful, about an hour. Remove from heat and cool several hours, or overnight, so that chicken is easy to handle. Strain broth into a large soup pot and discard vegetables and bay leaves. Remove chicken meat from bones and shred into small pieces. Reserve about 2 cups of meat for the soup. Use the remaining meat for sandwiches or salad or freeze for another day.
Set soup pot over high heat and stir in lemon juice, salt, 2 cups chicken, lemon juice and rice. Stir well to prevent rice from sticking on the bottom of pan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and let simmer until rice is cooked, mushy but not too mushy and most of the liquid is absorbed. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper and serve immediately with fresh dill and lemon slices.
Frances Boswell is a licensed acupuncturist at her practice, Qi Sera Sera Acupuncture, in New York City. She focuses on a lesser-known branch of Traditional Chinese Medicine, which identifies poor diet as a common cause of disease. Traditional Chinese Medicine understands that the importance of food goes beyond ingredients' vitamins, mineral, nutrient and caloric content—food has its own energetic and spiritual role in our health. Frances' aim is to teach this ancient wisdom, apply it to everyday cooking, and work with patients to modify their diets, in addition to acupuncture, to help them live, eat, and be well.