Galley Notes: Cheats Congee in Cruising World Magazine

Something that has been on heavy rotation in my galley these past few months has been my Cheats Congee. I say cheats because I don’t use uncooked rice and I don’t claim that it is a traditional recipe. Congee is a savoury rice porridge that is warm, and soothing, and delicious. It appears in many Asian countries, under different names and with as many variations probably as there are grandmothers who make it. It is as much of staple of hotel breakfast buffets in this part of the world as toast is in the western world.

All you need is rice and stock

I make my Cheats Congee using leftover rice, which seems to be a regular resident in our little fridge. It’s also a great way to use up a liter of chicken stock. Which, as luck would have it, is about the amount that I make in my pressure cooker using the carcase from the charcoal rotisserie chicken that we buy nearly weekly. The veggies and sometimes meat that gets thrown in the pot varies depending on what’s left onboard.

Weekly pot of chicken stock in the pressure cooker.

I wrote about being served congee for the first time back in 2002 by Zam, the Malaysian chef onboard the boat that Steve and I met on. The story and recipe appeared in the Cruising World March issue, and you can read it HERE.

I felt that the editing was a little heavy handed – I never claimed this to be a miracle in a bowl – and the recipe altered slightly – I would not suggest cooking frozen peas for 20 minutes or serving this with “curls of green onion.” Green onion for sure, but no one wants a huge curl of green onion on their tongue. Not to mention they totally forgot to include the suggestion to top it with crispy fried SPAM – don’t knock it ‘till ya try it!

 So, I am including my original submission below. I hope you enjoy the story and try my version of Cheats Congee next time you’re staring down some leftover rice and feel like a comforting bowl of food.




I was 23 when I completed my first blue water crossing. I was backpacking around Thailand after graduating from art college, when I heard about a 50-meter sailing yacht that was looking for a temp second stewardess for a few weeks. After a month on board, my temporary position turned into a full-time gig. Before I knew it, we were preparing to sail from Phuket, Thailand to Darwin, Australia via Singapore, and Bali.

Having only sailed a small dinghy around my home harbour back in Nova Scotia, I didn’t know what to expect from an ocean crossing. The passage to Singapore was flat and uneventful. Being the junior crew member, I got the graveyard shift as a secondary watch keeper, 0300-0700. My job was to make the coffee and keep the primary watch keeper entertained. I showed up each night 15 minutes early, caffeine at the ready and full of enthusiasm.

Our passage from Singapore to Bali was a little more exciting. The seas started to pick up and navigating the two spiral staircases between the bridge and crew quarters with mugs of hot coffee in my hands at three AM became a timing and agility test. I suffered from occasional moments of queasiness, but they were forgotten amidst promises of hedonistic nights on the dance floor during our week stopover in Bali.

When we departed on our final passage to Darwin, I had two weeks and nearly 3000NM under my belt, I felt like had earned my sea legs. On our second day on passage, we watched the sea become steep and confused. Our boat transformed from a hulking 50-meter vessel into a bathtub toy that pitched and rolled in the swell. Soon it wasn’t traversing the stairs that I was concerned about; I was struggling to keep down even a sip of water.

I thought I was hiding my severe seasickness but Zam, our Malaysian chef, saw the green around my gills. I was making my way to my cabin when Zam, standing by the stove and looking cool and calm, called my name. He was ladling something thick and white into a bowl. He held the bowl out to me; a waft of homemade chicken broth filled my nose.

“What is it?” I asked suspiciously. He had a history of serving delicacies like duck heads and chicken’s feet concealed at the bottom of a bowl of soup. Dishes that took a kind fortitude to eat that I knew I didn’t possess that morning.

 “It’s good for body,” he replied, thrusting the bowl into my hands. Zam was a man of few words. I took the bowl.

I ran my spoon through what looked like overcooked rice speckled with carrots and peas. It had the soft consistency of porridge and the hug of a bowl of chicken soup made by my Mom. There didn’t appear to be anything sinister hidden at the bottom, so I lifted a spoonful to my mouth.

The delicate, plump rice melted on my tongue and the perfectly cooked veggies yielded easily to my teeth. It was slightly salty and oddly familiar, something that reminded me of childhood despite never having eaten it before. The savoury rice was comforting and so easy to eat that I finished the whole bowl before retiring to my cabin to wait for the nausea to arrive. Instead, I woke several hours later, hungry for the first time in days. I returned to the galley with a bowl in hand. Zam nodded knowingly and dipped his ladle into the pot.Zam’s never ending pot of congee saved me. I ate it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the remainder of the passage.

My husband, Steve, and I have been living onboard and sailing fulltime since we bought Kate in California in 2008. We’ve spent our time sailing in the tropical Pacific, both north and south of the equator, but I still find myself craving a warming bowl of congee, especially during the rainy season. Whether I am feeling poorly or just want a cozy bowl to nourish me, this is a dish that still brings me comfort.

Rice, a staple in most of the islands west of Fiji that we’ve visited, and it has been a staple in my pantry since we started sailing. Rice is also grown in the Philippines, where we’ve been sailing recently. I didn’t think to ask Zam for his recipe 20 years ago, instead I have adapted the memory of that first bowl of congee to suit my cooking style, and my galley on board Kate, our 1973 Newport 41.

Like any traditional recipe, there are endless variations, and everyone has their own preferred style. My “Cheats Congee” uses leftover cooked rice to save time standing over a hot stove. The vegetables I add depend on what I have on hand, although the simple combination of carrots and peas is still my favourite. Sometimes I add some slices of roasted chicken or crispy cubes of SPAM on top. If I am making a pot of congee while on anchor, then lashings of soy, sesame and chili are always welcome.

Cheats Congee            
Cook time: 40mins                 Serves:4

1 ½ Cup Cooked Rice, cool (I prefer jasmine but even the store bought, reheat packets will do)
1 Litre Chicken or Vegetable Stock
1” Ginger, peeled and grated
½ Cup Carrot, finely diced
1/4 Cup Green Peas – can sub or add sweet corn, diced green beans
1 Green Onion, finely sliced

Sesame Oil
Togarashi (Japanese chili) or Sri Ratcha
Fried Garlic bits
Leftover Roasted Chicken, sliced or SPAM, diced into 1cm cubes and fried until crispy

Place a medium pot over medium heat, add the cooked rice, grated ginger and half the stock. Bring to a boil and stir to evenly combine, breaking up the clumps of rice. Boil for 5 minutes, add the rest of the stock and diced carrots, turn down heat so the mixture is actively simmering. Cook until the rice absorbs the stock and starts to break down slightly, 20-30 minutes. Stir frequently to avoid any rice sticking to the bottom. The congee should look like a loose porridge, with a smooth texture, not chunky and dry. If the mixture has dried out, add ¼ cup additional stock or water. Add the peas and corn 5 minutes before serving. Ladle into bowls, top with sliced green onions and drizzle with soy sesame. Serve with optional toppings for diners to garnish as desired.

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