February 27, 2013 | by Tallis Eng
To the hundreds of thousands in Asia who start each morning with a bowl of congee—and who, every evening, set their rice cooker to a low boil so that more congee is ready by the next day—it would probably seem strange that I’m about to spend so much time talking about the dish. It’s like someone rambling about corn flakes here. But in Manhattan, congee’s hard enough to find north of Houston Street, let alone beyond city limits. My tiny corner of the world feels like it’s in the perpetual midst of a congee shortage, and sometimes congee’s all I want to eat.
Topped with some mix of scallions, ginger, peanuts, and cilantro, the savory white-rice gruel (or more flatteringly, porridge) is often served in cast iron bowls, sometimes ladled into smaller portions and shared among a group. Typical fillings are fried dough (for breakfast), or pickled vegetables, or shrimp balls, or bits of lean pork, paired with eggs preserved until they’re translucent green. Many people in Asia associate the dish, for better or worse, with childhood memories of being sick in bed—the way we think of chicken soup here. But I didn’t grow up eating congee because, in my mother’s words, “it’s really just not that nutritious.” My mother prefers health foods, foods they call “superfoods” in women’s magazines, like blueberries and quinoa. As far as I can tell, congee neither lengthens nor curtails your life. And it’s just right there between comforting and bland: eating it makes you feel like you’re on the one hand nourishing your needs and on the other hand doing penance for your sins.
So where congee evokes childhood for others, to me, it’s the food of one’s twenties in downtown New York. Congee is what you go to eat when it’s dark out and you’ve ditched the rest of your friends, after the rest of your friends—whom you thought you’d chosen for their bookishness—suddenly decide they “want in” on the Saturday night dance party at Santos Party House. Congee is what you buy on your lunch break, down at the Pearl Street courthouse, when you’ve been asked how you’d apply calipers to human misery, as a potential juror on a slip-and-fall case. Congee is what you teach yourself to make, with recipes pulled from the Internet, failing miserably until distant family members reveal that you’re missing a secret ingredient—dried tofu sheets—which disappear into the rice and give it a smooth, thick consistency. Congee is what you learn that Joan Didion ate in The Year of Magical Thinking.
Back when my father still lived in New York, we ate it at XO Café on Hester, or Golden Unicorn on East Broadway (where it is served in smaller bowls with dim sum), or Full House on Bowery (which unceremoniously became a Shanghainese restaurant at some point last year, at which point it removed all congee from its menu). But most often we ate a small place called Hing Huang on Lafayette at Canal, which serves a satisfying, probably MSG-laden, sliced-fish version of the dish. I’m not claiming that the congee there’s the best in New York, but the place is cheap, and near all relevant subway stops. It’s also such a hole in the wall that it goes by at least two other names on the Internet. 111 Wing Wong. Wing Huang. The waiter there has been the same thin man with bulging eyes since at least 2008, and he’s always worn a red vest and black trousers. He soon figured out that our order never changed. “Leung wun yu peen juk?” Two bowls of sliced-fish congee.
Centuries ago, if you were eating congee, you probably didn’t have sliced fish in it. If you were eating congee, you were poor. There’s a line my father quotes from Dream of the Red Chamber (which he says is one of the four greatest works in the entire history of Chinese literature, its narrative scope “like Downton Abbey expanded tenfold”). The saying is rather scatological, so be forewarned. The line is something like “You eat congee but shit hard.” I e-mailed my father to find out more, and he replied:
“The quote is spoken by one earthly, uneducated but articulate peasant grandma character. There’s a chapter describing her awkward visit to the opulent estate that is the center of the epic novel. When she scolded her son-in-law for being too proud to ask for money from their distant family friend in charge of the wealthy family, she said he “eats congee but poops hard poop,” meaning that he is so poor that he cannot afford a bowl of steamed rice, has to subsist on watery congee, but would nevertheless pass hard poop to impress people.”
The situation is different nowadays, of course. Now I bring dates to eat congee at Hing Huang. In the words of my friend Tendayi, “You know that moment when you start seeing someone, and you’re trying to determine if they’re secretly a racist?” To put it more mildly, I like to know whether someone I’m with will eat congee. Not because either outcome is a deal breaker. It’s just that I need to know exactly what sort of person I have on my hands.
But now, more often than not, I’m on my own when eating congee at Hing Huang, especially since my father moved across the country. The restaurant has too much dirt and too little décor to really be any sort of a viable meeting point for friends. The same waiter’s there, balder now than before. And as he takes my order, I find myself offering news about my father: wanting this man to know that my father isn’t gone—as in gone gone. But of course this waiter doesn’t care if dad’s alive; I guess I’m assuring myself of the fact. Because some day it will not be the case, and still I’ll be going down to Lafayette and Canal to eat congee, but everything will be different.
Tallis Eng is a writer in New York.