Photo by Chatuporn Sornlampoo / EyeEm via Getty Images

Don't sleep on juk, congee, and champorado

Aaron Hutcherson
June 21, 2018

Americans don't tend to eat rice for breakfast, and we're missing out. Rice is one of the most ubiquitous ingredients around the world, and each country and culture consumes it in myriad ways every day—even multiples times a day in some places. For quite some time it seemed that the American culinary world mostly ignored the humble workhorse ingredient, but in recent years farmers have worked to bring back heritage varieties that had been lost to the ages and chefs are working to give the global staple its due in the restaurant world. Yet when it comes to breakfast, it is seldom found on menus in the United States.

At home, that is somewhat of a different story. A common breakfast dish from my childhood was cooked rice, milk (usually of the canned and evaporated variety), butter, and sugar. I didn't realize it at the time, but now I recognize it as rice pudding, more or less. Some may scoff at the notion of eating what's typically considered a dessert for breakfast, but swap out the rice for oats and what do you have? Exactly.

As fond as my memories may be, I haven't enjoyed this childhood favorite in quite some time at the start of my day. However, my interest in the notion of rice in the morning was reinvigorated by a trip to the Philippines where I was introduced to champorado, a chocolate rice porridge commonly served at breakfast. And even on my flight to Manila I was served juk, a Korean type of congee, which itself can be found across much of Asia in numerous iterations. Upon further research, Ghana has what they simply call the "rice water" to reflect the main ingredients, there's a version in Jamaica that often is thickened with a slurry and flavored with coconut milk, cinnamon, and nutmeg, and even our very own Minnesota has the largely unknown outside the state Mahnomin porridge, which is composed of wild rice, cream, berries, nuts, and syrup.

Some of the recipes I researched call for leftover rice while others begin with uncooked grains. The cooking liquid required for each includes water, coconut milk, dairy, and combinations thereof, incorporated in varying ratios of starch to liquid and resulting in an array of consistencies. As for flavorings and add-ins, only the sky is the limit.

Yet if rice porridge is so omnipresent, abounding with potential for culinary creativity, why is it often left out of the conversation and off of the menus across breakfast tables in America? My theory is economics and class.

People often joke about only being able to eat rice and beans during rent week because they are cheap and affordable. Carrying that over to the restaurant world, it makes sense that most diners wouldn't want to pay for a rice porridge dish what a chef would want to—and should—charge them. Even in conversation and food culture, rice porridge is not something lauded by the Instagram set or self-proclaimed foodies. Instead, it is viewed as something only consumed when finances are tight. The word porridge itself—also referred to as gruel—conjures pictures of prisons, starving orphans, and staving off malnutrition, making it clear why the dining public would see a "real chef" serving such a dish as a waste of her talent.

Another factor is the use of already-cooked rice in this meal. It's my observation that some people can't fathom the idea of eating leftovers. Particularly among the urban set that's presumed to have only beer and condiments in their fridges, to have fresh meals each day is an indicator of wealth and status, whereas saving what you have for another time in lieu of throwing it in the trash is the opposite. Explaining to acquaintances that I'm able to feed myself multiple home-cooked meals a week by cooking only once or twice during that period often brings a confounded look to their faces. Yet when others use the term "meal prep" it all seems to make sense and even connotes a "healthy" lifestyle.

Regardless if rice porridge is a vehicle for reducing food waste or not, the meal's popularity across cultures speaks for the important role it plays in feeding our world. It's an affordable blank canvas that is ripe for features in magazines and on breakfast tables all around. This is my call to look at rice porridge with at least as much attention as we give to rainbow bagels or mermaid toast—it's time to give this humble bowl of grains the credit it deserves.

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