Just the other day, some friends and I were discussing which country has the best comfort food. We couldn’t decide on a dish or a country, but we all agreed that each culture offers its own version to suit specific tastes and needs.
The concept of comfort food resonates with every one of us, even those who reside in the “eat to live” crowd. Everyone has a dish they turn to when they’re in need of a mood booster.
But what constitutes comfort food also differs from one individual to another. Even people with a shared culture have a preferred comfort food, depending on their gender, age, and personal experiences.
We are lucky in Hong Kong because we have such a great variety of comfort foods. Better yet, they are all affordable and easy to find.
Eating plain congee can lift your spirits. Photo: Shutterstock
Some Hongkongers love a bowl of instant noodles with a fried egg and a slice of fried Spam, while some will opt for a Hong Kong-style French toast laden with butter and syrup. Whatever you’re in the mood for, Hong Kong has it all; and I’m sure your local cha chaan teng can cater to whatever your heart desires.
My favourite comfort food is congee, with or without added ingredients.
A bowl of congee is sometimes served plain, or it can come with chicken, beef balls, fish, or even a mountain of yau ja gwai (Chinese cruller). The world is your oyster when it comes to building your congee bowl.
Sometimes, even a plain bowl of congee will do the trick and leave me feeling satiated (in more ways than one). A mouthful of hot and silky-smooth congee can melt away any negative feelings and lift my mood almost instantly.
Congee is not only a classic breakfast dish, but also a versatile food that can be elevated through the addition of other ingredients.
Congee with yau ja gwai (Chinese cruller). Photo: Shutterstock
To begin with, plain congee is typically used by Hongkongers to nurse someone back to health. It boosts digestion, as it’s easy on the stomach, and it can nourish the immune system, and even relieve inflammation. And once you’re feeling better, you can then treat yourself to a bowl of hot chicken congee, which is made with flavourful bouillon and topped with delicate slices of chicken.
Now I think about it, merely calling congee a type of comfort food doesn’t do justice to its versatility and contributions. It has a lot more to offer than any other culture’s comfort food.
It is in a league of its own because it can heal your insides, incite a sense of camaraderie, and express your care and love for another.
Making chicken congee for someone shows your love. Photo: Shutterstock
It doesn’t just change and lift your mood, it is a culinary concoction of love and compassion. Comfort foods are like a security blanket that alleviate loneliness and provide a sense of protection especially when one is feeling nostalgic. It primes positive thoughts of previous interactions a person has with their family and friends to provide a feeling of familiarity. If you’re feeling lonely – as so many of us have this past year – then a bowl of congee can take you right home.
It also has the magic power to foster loving bonds between two people. Just imagine the care and attention that is required to cook up a pot of congee. A proper bowl of congee takes at least an hour to make – if not more – and it’s not a dish that is passively crafted (ie, left simmering on a stove). If it is not a declaration of love and compassion, I don’t know what is.
There is a phrase in Cantonese that goes: “When we have rice, we share and if we only have congee, we share too.” The saying means we will always support each other through thick and thin. This just goes to show it is a dish that summons a deep sense of camaraderie from within us.
Chicken congee is eaten for its therapeutic properties among other reasons. Photo: Shutterstock
It all goes to support the fact that the very notion of comfort food goes beyond satisfying one’s appetite, it can also satiate our souls and the very core of our being.
Let’s praise the much-loved congee for its array of therapeutic properties that provide solace, a sense of well-being and security, and the ability to take us back to our childhood, home, and other places that we know and cherish.
Next time you are feeling lonely, homesick, or nostalgic, treat yourself to a bowl of congee to soothe your soul and take you down memory lane.
Better yet, if you’re seeking new ways to show your loved ones what they mean to you, why not make them a hot, steaming bowl of congee to say, “I love you”?
Luisa Tam is a Post correspondent who also hosts video tutorials on Cantonese language that are now part of Cathay Pacific’s in-flight entertainment programme.