Congee: the Dravidian roots of the name for a Chinese dish

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I love congee and I love the word "congee":

"Chinese restaurant shorthand, part 2" (11/30/16)

"Chinese restaurant shorthand, part 3" (2/25/17)

Lisa Lim has written an edifying article on the subject in the South China Morning Post Magazine (11/10/17):

"Where the word congee comes from – the answer may surprise you:  The dish is frequently associated with East Asian cuisine but the term originated in India – from the Tamil kanji"

It begins:

You can’t escape the word in Hong Kong – everywhere you turn there’s a congee house of some sort, serving jūk (Cantonese) or zhōu (Mandarin). A staple across Asia, congee is a preparation of – depending on where you live – rice (or other grains or legumes) boiled in water, using grains that may be long or short, whole or broken; some versions substitute water with milk or coconut milk. It is served plain, accompanied by side dishes (salted duck egg, seafood, pickled vegetables or braised meat), or cooked together with ingredients such as chicken, preserved egg or herbs.

There are as many names for congee as there are versions of it. A sampling from around the region includes muay (Hokkien, Teochew); chok or khao tom (Thai); cháo (Vietnamese); hsan pyok (Burmese); bâbâr (Khmer); bubur (Malay, Indonesian); lúgaw (Tagalog); okayu (Japanese).

The Wikipedia article on "congee" includes some more words for congee in different Asian languages:

…kaṇhji (Malayalam), pakhal bhat (Odia), ganji (Kannada/Telugu), baw baw (Khmer), juk (Hakka, Cantonese, Korean), … deythuk (Tibetan), kayu (Japanese), lúgaw (Tagalog), bubur or kanji (Indonesian and Malay), jaulo (Nepali) or jaou (Bengali), which derives … from the Chinese … (zhōu, which means gruel)….

It's noteworthy that the words for congee in Nepali and Bengali, though they are South Asian languages, have apparently been borrowed from Mandarin.

Lim continues:

Congee as a dish is documented in ancient East and South Asian texts, particularly associated with ritual fasting. The earliest reference can be traced back to the Zhou dynasty (circa 1000BC). It is also mentioned in the Chinese Record of Rites(1st century AD) and noted in Pliny’s account of India circa AD77. The dish does tend to be associated with East Asian cuisine, so it is interesting to discover that the word “congee” has its origins in the Tamil kanji (also the Telugu and Kannada gañji, the Malayalam kanni and the Urdu ganji), from kanjī (“boilings”), referring to the water in which rice has been cooked.

Lim goes on to document how the word was transmitted to Europe by the Portuguese beginning in the 1560s and then spread to other European countries during the 17th and following centuries.  It's curious, though, that this dish in Singapore is not called "congee", but rather "porridge", which comes from an Old French word, porree, meaning "leek soup".

No matter what you call it, congee is a food for the gods and the masses.

[h.t. Geoff Wade]



15 Comments »

  1. Sergey said,

    November 13, 2017 @ 2:16 pm

    I wonder if the Russian word "kasha" (каша) with the same meaning also has a related origin.

  2. arthur waldron said,

    November 13, 2017 @ 3:09 pm

    This is in the indispensable Hobson-Jobson. Lots of "China coast" words in fact come from the subcontinent. Fascinating. Of course I love it but the average Chinese except in a HK restaurant has no idea what "Congee" is; but say 粥 in HK and the room service kitchen will be confused. Not so in Taiwan or China. Kasha is a little different. But who knows?

    Warm regards

    Arthur

    "

  3. Victor Mair said,

    November 13, 2017 @ 6:05 pm

    From Steve Schoen:

    Neat etymology.

    Our company (Hawaiian Telcom) cafeteria serves jook once every 5 or 6 weeks. We serve ourselves out of a big soup pot. There are bowls of toppings next to the pot.

    I never knew jook was congee until I read your blog post.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    November 13, 2017 @ 6:14 pm

    From Wikipedia:

    =====

    In the English language, kasha is a term for the pseudocereal buckwheat. In Central and Eastern Europe, especially in Belarus, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine, kasha is a dish made of any kind of grains boiled in water or milk, i.e. a porridge.

    The largest gross consumption per capita is in Russia, with 15 kg (33 lb) per year followed by Ukraine, with 12 kg (26 lb) per year. The share of buckwheat in the total consumption of cereals in Russia is 20%.

    This English-language usage probably originated with Jewish immigrants, as did the form קאַשי kashi (technically plural, literally translated as "porridges").

    The word generally refers to roasted whole-grain buckwheat or buckwheat groats.[citation needed] However, in Slavic Europe, it refers to porridge in general and can be made from buckwheat or any cereal wheat, barley, oats, millet and rye. At least 1,000 years old, kasha is one of the oldest known dishes in Central European and Eastern European cuisine.

    In Russian, buckwheat is referred to formally as гречиха (grechikha) and buckwheat grain and buckwheat groats as гречневая крупа (grechnevaya krupa). Informally buckwheat grain and buckwheat groats are called гречка (grechka), and the porridge made from buckwheat groats is known as гречневая каша (grechnevaya kasha). In Polish, buckwheat porridge is referred to as kasza gryczana. Annual (2013) per capita consumption of groats in Poland is approx. 1.56 kg (3.4 lb) per year (130 g (4.6 oz) a month). The Czech cognate kaše (Czech pronunciation: [kaʃɛ] has a wider meaning, also encompassing mashed potato (bramborová kaše), pease pudding (hrachová kaše) etc.

    =====

    Surprisingly (to me), Kashi, the whole grain cereal company, has a different derivation:

    =====

    Kashi is a maker of whole grain cereals and other plant-based foods sourced from regular farming practices. Founded in San Diego in 1981, the company makes over 90 products sold in the U.S. and Canada. Its original cereal pilaf was identified by the tagline “Seven Whole Grains on a Mission.” The company name is a blended term derived from “kashruth,” meaning kosher or pure food, and “Kushi," the last name of the founder of American macrobiotics, Michio Kushi.

    =====

  5. Tom said,

    November 13, 2017 @ 6:32 pm

    So how does xīfàn 稀飯 fit into all of this?

  6. Sergey said,

    November 13, 2017 @ 6:50 pm

    In Russia there is also the "pea kasha" (гороховая каша, горошница) which probably matches the pease pudding, so it's not unique to Czech. It's basically made of boiled split peas, thicker than the pea soup.

    But the mashed potatoes are never referred to in Russian as kasha, it's always puree (пюре), and the word puree without any additional modifiers means the mashed potatoes in Russian.

    Interestingly, a search has turned up such a thing as "potato kasha" but its origins seem to be non-Russian. One of the recipes says that it's a Finnish dish, the ingredients in another one (Brynza cheese, Adjika hot sauce) point towards Caucasus. Apparently it's made by first grating the potatoes then boiling the resulting "grains". I've found some recipes of potato kasha from Belarus that are the mashed potatoes with additions, so maybe the mashed potatoes have been called this way historically but now by this name is preserved only in a few places.

  7. Lara said,

    November 13, 2017 @ 10:12 pm

    I had the same question as tom. Am confused by it. Amazing piece all the same.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    November 13, 2017 @ 11:39 pm

    During the last half century, I've eaten a lot of xīfàn 稀飯 ("porridge; gruel") and a lot of zhōu 粥 ("congee"). While I wouldn't want to draw a hard and fast line between them, in general I would say that — as the name indicates — xīfàn 稀飯 (lit., "sparse / diluted rice") tends to be more thin and watery, whereas zhōu 粥 ("congee") is thicker and heartier.

    In my family, we eat very watery xīfàn 稀飯 when we're sick and can't tolerate practically anything else, whereas zhōu 粥 ("congee") might be felt to be too rich to digest when we're not feeling well.

    Another difference is that xīfàn 稀飯 is more of a northern designation and dish, whereas zhōu 粥 ("congee") is identified more as a southern, especially Cantonese, dish.

    Finally, and this I know from the way it is cooked and served, zhōu 粥 ("congee") usually has meats and other substantial ingredients cooked right into it for a long time, making the broth incredibly tasty, whereas most xīfàn 稀飯 that I've had was just plain rice with more or less water cooked until the individual grains begin to disintegrate. What's neat and fun about xīfàn 稀飯 is that you can add your own toppings as you wish: pickles soaked in soy sauce, ròusōng 肉鬆 ("meat floss"), peanuts, etc. Still, for a gustatory experience that's hard to exceed, I prefer zhōu 粥 ("congee") over xīfàn 稀飯 ("porridge; gruel"), and that's one of the reasons I love to go to Hong Kong, one of my favorite cities on earth, as often as I can: there are zuk1 粥 ("congee") shops on almost every corner, and most of them serve fabulously delicious, piping hot bowls of this heavenly food that costs very little.

    Is your mouth watering?

  9. Paul said,

    November 14, 2017 @ 3:50 am

    Thanks for the interesting sharing. Just wanted to add, though Singapore does indeed use "porridge" instead of "congee" in daily speech, "congee" is still more commonly found in stall signs and menus.

  10. George said,

    November 14, 2017 @ 8:11 am

    I have always associated xīfàn with the few weeks following the birth of our first daughter in Beijing, as it was the principal and recurring feature of what our redoubtable Ayi would allow my wife to eat, given her perilously fragile state. (My wife's mother being one of eleven children, family attitudes to childbirth and its attendant risks are a bit more cool, to say the least.) Fortunately Ayi also had a somewhat exaggerated idea of my appetite, so I always had plenty of leftovers to share en cachette. You'll appreciate that my feelings about xīfàn (not to mention my wife's) have been deeply marked by this experience…

  11. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 14, 2017 @ 9:12 am

    I have no idea where the Wikipedia article got the notion of the form קאַשי kashi (technically plural, literally translated as "porridges"); it certainly isn't in the cited source. The Yiddish word is קאַשע (Slavic word-final /a/ usually turns to /ɛ/ or /ə/ in Yiddish), and the Americanized form kashi is probably due to the usual conversion of word-final /ɛ/ to/i/, as for example pastrami from פּאַסטראַמע (Romanian pastramă. This change also happens with German words ending in -e.

  12. Sanjeev said,

    November 15, 2017 @ 4:59 am

    Happy to find an article about kanji, as it is called in Malayalam, my language. We cook it by just boiling water with broken rice normally, and eat it with salted tender mangoes and roasted poppadoms. Once a staple diet in Kerala, this dish has sadly come to be associated with poverty by many in the state. So nobody serves it to their guests. It is still the preferred diet when one is sick. It is hard to find Kanji in most restaurants, except in the ones near hospitals.

  13. Richard Sears (Uncle Hanzi) said,

    November 17, 2017 @ 8:44 pm

    Glad to know the origin of this word which I never heard in American English. I always look at the logic of a character. The older character appears to be from 鬻 since congee is cooked in a 鬲 gé . There is the rice 米 mǐ itself, and then there is the steam from the rice and water which appears as the remnant 弜 jiàng. I like the gaiyokjok on the streets of Hong Kong. Here in China it is the tradition for women to eat millet zhou. I always tell them, Americans don't eat millet and in Africa, they only feed millet to animals.

  14. Dibya said,

    November 18, 2017 @ 4:29 am

    As a native Bengali speaker, I can confirm the existence of the word "jāu" (জাউ) in this sense, though in my time and place it is obsolescent, if not obsolete. But Wikipedia has likely stretched it a bit too far to derive it from Mandarin. I suspect, it is far more likely to have evolved from Sanskrit "yavāgū", also meaning some sort of gruel. Intervocalic g is regularly lost, initial y regularly becomes j. My only doubt is whether the sequence avā should yield Bengali ā or oā.

  15. Chris Button said,

    November 18, 2017 @ 8:24 pm

    The etymology of the Chinese word represented by 粥 is interesting too. It seems to have originally referred to a basic form of nourishment as perhaps best exemplified by French nourriture "food". Its phonological association with 育/毓 "nurture" is thus explained by the parallel etymological association between "nourriture" (cf. English "nourishment") and "nurture".

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