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張方賢《煮粥詩》 “A Poem on Cooking Congee” by Zhang Fangxian









Why is cooking rice not as good as cooking congee?

[I] shall explain to [my] boys and girls.

One litre [of raw rice] may be used for two litres [of congee]:

Two days’ [portion] can provide for six days.

[When we] have guests, [we] only need to increase water and fire.

[When we] have no money, it’s not necessary to ask for broth.

Don’t say it’s plain, having no taste.

In plainness, [its] taste is more flavoursome.

* From “Zhoubu” 粥部 in the Gujin tushu jicheng 古今圖書集成, scroll 266.

[1] Red characters rhyme.


For me, one of the great ways to kill time is to read some quirky parts of a leishu 類書 (category book), which is a collection of categorised excerpts from pre-existing literature and thus shares similarities with commonplace books and encyclopaedias. Just as one may come across funny titbits in an encyclopaedia, one can also find surprising amusement in a leishu, especially in those sections on relatively trivial matters.

This time I went for the sections about zhou 粥 (congee). Much to my regret, the summertime when I can have plenty of corn congee has passed. It’s getting cooler day by day, making one long for warm food. My favourite corn congee, which we often enjoy cool on summer days, has gradually left our dining table. To savour my good memory of it, I found a small collection of poetry on the art of congee in the Gujin tushu jicheng 古今圖書集成 (Complete Collection of Illustrations and Books from the Past and Present), a massive leishu compiled during the eighteenth century.

We know next to nothing about Zhang Fangxian 張方賢, who wrote the poem translated above, except that he was from the Ming dynasty. It seems clear that he and his family had lived in poverty when this poem was written, but the very fact that he wrote such a poem in jest suggests he hadn’t lost his good humour just yet. We don’t know how old his audience (“boys and girls,” or children) were, but I wonder whether they bought, or even understood, his philosophy of life embedded in the last two lines.

My mother enjoyed lines 3-6 a lot as they reminded her of the old days in the village where she grew up. The elders always said, as she told me, “How difficult can it be to raise one more child? Just add a bit more water so they will be fed.” Whereas Zhang Fangxian’s trick of making six days’ meals out of two days’ portion of ingredients works for rice, I’m afraid it doesn’t work equally well with the corn congee that I’m greatly fond of.

This corn congee is a low-profile regional dish, made from white glutinous corn (also known as “pearl corn”) instead of the more common yellow varieties. Unlike rice, which would burst and lose its original form after prolonged cooking, the kernel of the white glutinous corn can keep its shape very well. They are usually sold as dried kernels with the pericarp removed. After a long period of cooking, each kernel in the congee will be rehydrated and shine like a white pearl.

Apart from its look, another feature that I personally enjoy is the thick liquid. Precisely because rice tends to lose its form after prolonged cooking, it’s easier for rice to disperse into the liquid. But if you add too much water when cooking with the white glutinous corn which tends to hold its shape, the liquid will be too clear and can easily reach the point of being boring. Therefore, I would highly recommend the thick corn congee, which maximises its light but beautiful flavour.

But well, if one lives in a condition when one has to make six days’ meals out of two days’ portion of the corn, I guess the thin version will be an acceptable compromise. If one runs a restaurant, it’s perhaps even preferable to have the thin version. As I mentioned, the corn congee is a simple, low-profile regional dish. My family has never cooked it with anything more than dried corn kernels and water. If anyone is interested in discovering its beauty, the best way is to get some good quality dried kernels and work out the corn-water ratio that gives the best result for you.

Hmm, for such a simple dish, photos can’t say much, but still...


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