Miracle in a Bowl

This creamy rice porridge is guaranteed to sate your hunger and banish rainy-day or rough-passage blahs.
Heather Francis
In 2008, Heather and her Aussie partner, Steve, bought the Newport 41 Kate in California and have been cruising it full time since. Courtesy Heather Francis

It was a rainy day in the Philippines aboard Kate, our Newport 41. Though my husband, Steve, and I have been cruising full time in the tropical Pacific since leaving California in 2008, I still find myself occasionally craving a warm bowl of something—­particularly during rainy season, when the blahs set in. 

I knew exactly what to make. I discovered this miracle porridge when I was fresh out of college. Armed only with small-boat coastal-­sailing experience, I’d landed a job as second stewardess aboard a 164-foot sailing yacht. The boat was preparing to sail from Phuket, Thailand, to Darwin, Australia, via Singapore and Bali. I had no idea what to expect from an ocean crossing. 

Our passage to Singapore was flat and uneventful. As junior crewmember, I drew the graveyard shift: se­­condary watch keeper, 0300 to 0700. My job: Make coffee and keep the primary watch keeper company. 

The Singapore-to-Bali leg was a little more exciting. The seas kicked up a bit, and moving topsides to deliver coffee became a timing and agility test. Occasionally, I felt queasy, but no more than that. 

By the time we set sail for Darwin, I had nearly 3,000 nautical miles under my belt. I felt like I’d earned my sea legs. I would soon learn otherwise. As seas became steep and confused, our sturdy yacht pitched and rolled like a bathtub toy. Soon, it wasn’t moving around that I was concerned about; I was struggling to keep down even a sip of water. 

I’d thought I was hiding my mal de mer, butZam, our Malaysian chef, spotted my green gills. I was lurching back to my cabin to rest when he called my name. Standing by the stove looking cool and calm, he ladled something thick and white into a bowl. He held it out, and the scent of chicken broth wafted from it. 

“What is it?” I asked. (He’d had a history of serving “delicacies” such as chicken’s feet concealed in soup.) “It’s good for body,” he replied, thrusting the bowl into my hands. 

I ran my spoon through what looked like creamy rice speckled with vegetables. It had the soft consistency of porridge. Like a bowl of chicken soup made by my mom, it made me feel hugged. Spying nothing sinister in it, I lifted a spoonful to my mouth. 

It tasted oddly familiar, somehow reminding me of childhood. The delicate, plump rice with bits of peas and carrots was comforting. It was so easy to eat that I finished the whole bowl before ­retiring to my cabin to await the inevitable nausea. 

Instead, I woke several hours later, hungry for the first time in days. I returned to the galley, bowl in hand. Zam nodded knowingly and dipped his ladle once again. His never-ending pot of porridge saved me.

Later, I learned its name: congee (pronounced KON-jee). It’s a traditional comfort food throughout Asia. I ate it for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the remainder of the passage. 

I never did ask for Zam’s recipe, but I’ve used the indelible memory of that first bowl to re-create my own version. This dish has endless variations and names. “Cheat’s Congee” uses leftover or already cooked rice. The vegetables I add depend on what I have on hand, although the simple combination of carrots and peas is still my favorite. 

The next time you’re under the weather, or simply in the mood for comfort, this quick and simple porridge will make you feel better in no time. It’s a miracle in a bowl.

Cheat’s Congee (serves 4)

Bowl of congee rice porridge
Cheat’s Congee Lynda Morris Childress
  • 1½ cups high-starch white rice*
  • 4¼ cups chicken or vegetable stock 
  • 1-inch piece of ginger (or to taste), peeled and grated
  • ½ cup carrot, diced 
  • ¼ cup frozen green peas or frozen green beans, chopped

*Carolina or jasmine; do not use basmati 

Toppings (optional):

  • 2 cups cooked chicken, sliced
  • 1-2 green onions, chopped finely or curled

Cook ¾ cup rice according to package directions and let cool thoroughly, or use leftover rice. Add 1½ cups of the cooked rice, 2 cups of the stock, and grated ginger to a medium pot. Stir to combine. Bring to a boil over medium heat, breaking up any rice clumps. Boil uncovered for 5 minutes. 

Add remaining stock and diced carrots. Bring back to a steady simmer. Leave pot uncovered. Cook for 15 minutes. 

Add frozen vegetables. Bring to an active simmer; cook until the rice absorbs most of the stock and starts to break down slightly and veggies are cooked, 15 to 20 minutes more. Check and stir every now and then to prevent rice sticking to the bottom. 

The congee is ready when it turns thick and creamy, like a porridge with a smooth texture. If the mixture is too soupy, simmer longer; if it’s too dry, stir in ¼ cup additional hot stock or water. 

Ladle into bowls, add optional toppings, and garnish with sliced or curled green onions. Serve warm.

Prep time: 45 minutes to 1 hour
Difficulty: easy
Can be made: Underway or at anchor

Cook’s Notes: Use whatever veggies you like. Alternative toppings: cooked pork, shrimp or fish. If desired, drizzle with soy sauce, sesame oil or ­sriracha. To curl green onions: Slice green tops into 1/8-inch-wide by 3-inch-long matchsticks. Soak for 10 to 15 minutes in a small bowl of ice water; drain briefly on a kitchen towel.