The healing power of congee—a simple, slow cooked white rice porridge—presents a bit of a mystery to most health-conscious Westerners (including health care practitioners).
I can’t tell you how many puzzled looks I’ve gotten when I recommend it to patients.
“But Dr. Fitzgerald,” some say, “I thought grains, especially white grains, were bad for my “fill-in-the-condition here.“
And I understand where they’re coming from. I mean, overcooked white rice? Where’s the nutritional value in that?
Yet, this humble, ancient rice porridge has been extensively used in Chinese food therapy for centuries to help with a wide variety of acute and chronic conditions, and is a staple in many Asian households.
As a Doctor of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine a Certified Clinical Nutritionist, I can’t imagine treating digestive health issues without it; plus it’s so inexpensive and simple to make. In the earliest years of my practice, I must admit I dismissed the idea of this porridge as beneficial. With time, thankfully I developed some humility and a deeper respect for the wisdom of those who have gone before me. I am so grateful to know about this incredible digestive tonic, as it has helped many patients, family members, and friends during their healing processes.
So, how exactly does plain old white rice become a medicinal food?
Read on as we explore the amazing alchemy behind the healing power of congee.
How Congee Heals
Congee, also known as Jook has been a staple in China, and other parts of Asia for millennia.
Think of it as the Asian version of your American Grandma’s chicken soup; the ultimate slow-cooked comfort food designed to heal, strengthen, and energize.
In my practice, I recommend congee to support the healing process of conditions such as:
- Leaky Gut Syndrome
- Acid reflux/indigestion
- Inflammatory conditions (both chronic and acute)
- Spleen/stomach issues
- To increase milk production in nursing mothers
- As a recovery food after acute illness, such as cold, flu, or stomach bugs
Healing benefits aside, congee is also enjoyed as a breakfast food throughout Asia to promote good health and longevity; and can be combined with endless ingredients to create sweet or savory dishes for any occasion.
So, how does congee work as “functional” or healing food?
According to Traditional Chinese Dietary Theory, warm, well-cooked foods are very easy for the body to digest, which helps conserve energy for healing while helping repair or rehabilitate digestive function.
In addition, rice is considered a neutral, non-allergenic food, which makes it safe for even the most sensitive digestive system.
But is Congee Actually Nutritious?
White rice isn’t typically thought of as a nutrient-dense food. In fact, many natural health practitioners consider brown rice to be more nutritious (if they recommend grains at all, but that’s a topic for another time).
However, Traditional Chinese Medicine doesn’t just view foods just in terms of their macro and micronutrients (such as protein, carbs, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, etc.), thus congee is believed to nourish the whole person on a variety of levels.
First off, its warm, moistening properties nourish and fortify the stomach and spleen while healing a weakened digestive tract.
Second, it energizes and tonifies the blood which produces stronger Qi (energy) and aids in efficient nutrient transportation.
Third, its neutral profile and absorbability makes it ideal to combine with other healing foods and herbs to enhance their effectiveness, while reducing the chance of stomach upset from pungent or “spicy” herbs.
Plain congee does contain essential nutrients such as protein, carbohydrates, fiber, and fat. It’s also an ideal vessel for the addition of other nutritious foods and flavorings (more on this coming up).
Fifth, since it’s cooked with so much water congee is hydrating! which helps prevent dehydration after a stomach bug, for example, while keeping digestion and elimination flowing smoothly.
How to Make Healing Congee At Home
Congee is not difficult or expensive to prepare and can be made even more convenient with a slow cooker.
The key is using lots of water and letting it cook a loooonnnnggg time, as it’s the slow-cooking that transforms plain old white rice into a nutritious digestible healing food.
In other words: the longer it cooks, the better (which means: no InstantPot recipes, please—unless it’s done on slow-cook mode!)
Note: While Congee is traditionally cooked daily, it’s OK to batch-cook if that’s what makes it doable for you.
Basic Healing Congee Recipe
- 1 cup organic white rice (short grain is preferable as it creates a smoother texture, but long grain will work too)
- At least 8 cups of filtered or spring water (you can use more if you like)
- one inch of sliced ginger root (optional)
Cooking Procedure (stovetop):
- Rinse the rice well.
- Add everything to a large pot. Bring to a boil, reduce to your stove’s lowest setting, and simmer, covered, for about 2 hours. Check and stir often, as you don’t want the bottom. of pot to burn or it to get too sticky. Use cooking common sense. Feel free to add more water if needed for a porridge consistency.
Cooking Procedure (slow cooker):
- Rinse the rice well.
- Add everything to your slow cooker, and let cook on the lowest setting for 6-10 hours (or overnight for a convenient breakfast)
Once again, if you’re experiencing illness, recovering from illness, and/or have digestive health issues, I recommend eating your congee plain or with a bit of sea salt for flavor.
Then, as your conditions stabilizes, you can add different herbs, spices, and flavorings for variety.
Like any grain, congee provides a blank slate for the addition of other flavorful, healing foods and spices. Some of my favorites include:
- Grated carrot: dispels gas and aids digestion
- Ginger: can help with nausea and vomiting, enhances immunity
- Cinnamon: helps with stomach pain, diarrhea
- Dulse flakes (or any sea vegetable): nourishes the thyroid, cools the body, reduces inflammation
- Real miso: contains natural probiotics and prebiotics to support gut health
- Turmeric: benefits the spleen and stomach, reduces inflammation, harmonizes digestive complaints
- Walnuts: supports the kidneys and cognitive function
- Black sesame seeds: tonifies the qi and blood, nourish the kidneys, moves the intestines and addresses constipation
- Figs: nourish the spleen, support intestinal health, and help with coughs
- Honey: strengthens the lungs and respiratory system, moves the bowels
- Goji berries (aka: Wolf berries): supports kidney and liver health
For sweet congee, I recommend small amounts of natural sweeteners like raw honey, coconut sugar, maple syrup, or dates.
For savory congee, you can use vegetable or bone broth in place of water, and season with real organic fermented soy sauce, miso, coconut aminos, pink salt, etc. Meats, legumes, tempeh, tofu, and vegetables can also be added to create a full and satisfying meal.
May you enjoy experimenting with congee, the simple and humble–yet potent–digestive tonic!