There’s nothing that can ignite feelings of nostalgia like a good comforting meal. Comfort food will bring you solace whenever you eat it and is almost like receiving a hug from a loved one. Everyone’s ideal comfort food can vary depending on their culture, climate, and preferences. For one, it could be thunder tea rice (leicha) from the hawker they grew up eating, and for another, it could be their grandmother’s lasagne. Comfort food is anything you want it to be. At the very core, it’s the feeling of home that it brings to the person who consumes it. In this article, we will be exploring some of the different kinds of porridge that can found around the world.
What Is Porridge?
For many, a warm, hearty bowl porridge is the ultimate comfort food and essentially comes from starchy grains (usually oats, rice, barley, buckwheat, corn, etc…) that has been boiled in some kind of liquid, typically stock, water or milk. For a long time, people have been using porridge to stretch out meals, enabling them to serve an entire family with minimal ingredients. It’s considered a staple food in many parts of the world, especially in Europe, Asia and Africa.
The name porridge can be traced back to the term ‘potage’, which is the word for ‘soup’ in French. Though the term ‘porridge’ was not used until the 17th century, the consumption of porridge like dishes has accompanied mankind since the Neolithic period. Porridge has fuelled humanity since we evolved from nomadic hunter-gatherers to settled farming communities. The history of porridge is closely linked to Scotland, due to the marginal upland soils that enabled the successful cultivation of oats. Dr Samuel Johnson, a famed poet and writer of the 17th century, wrote that oats were “a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”. The preparation of rice porridge has also been documented in China since 4,500 years ago, while quinoa has been consumed by various regions in Asia for over 3,000 years. Needless to say, the preparation and consumption of porridge is etched in history as an essential form of sustenance for many civilisations.
So, What Makes Porridge So Great?
First, it is quite the superfood. Grains which are usually the main component in porridge are a source of vitamins, minerals, fibre and nutrients. Oats, a common grain used for cooking porridge, contains a polysaccharide known as beta glucans that can help to lower cholesterol levels. The fibre, Vitamin K and antioxidants found in certain grains can also help reduce the risk of stroke as well as heart disease.
Other than its substantial health benefits, porridge is also extremely versatile. It can be served for breakfast, lunch or dinner, and tweaked according to one’s preference. It can be served both savoury and sweet. Almost every culture has their own variations of porridge depending on the availability of ingredients, customs as well as culinary history. Despite all these differences, porridge is known as a universal dish that can be enjoyed by people from all walks of life. It’s a dish that has sustained the earliest of our civilisations and is often associated with feelings of wholesomeness and satisfaction.
Oat porridge, also known as oatmeal, is one of the most known and consumed porridges in the world. Essentially, oats are a species of cereal grain that’s grown for its seed. It’s especially popular in places such as the UK, Germany, and many Nordic countries, where it’s a staple breakfast food. It has been discovered that our Neolithic ancestors from 5,000 years ago had already been consuming oat porridge when traces of it were found in bodies found in bogs excavated from Central Europe and Scandinavia.
Oatmeal is nutritionally rich, which makes it a popular choice for breakfast. As mentioned before, it holds a variety of vitamins, is rich in protein and contains beta glucans that can lower cholesterol levels, reduce risk of stroke and promote gut health.
Preparing oatmeal is as simple as boiling oats. Depending on the processing method, these oats can come in many shapes and forms. Some of the varieties are rolled, instant and steel cut, all of which are readily available in grocery stores. Though this wholesome breakfast can be enjoyed on its own, most would agree that regular oatmeal tastes rather bland. Hence, most people would jazz it up with nuts, fruits and sweeteners.
Rice congee is a comfort food beholden dearly by the Asian community. The name congee derives from the Tamil word ‘kanji.’ It is called ‘juk’ (Cantonese) or ‘zhou’ (Mandarin) by the Chinese community, ‘okayu’ by the Japanese, ‘babor’ in Cambodia, and ‘bubur’ in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Every Asian household has their own take on this dish, where some like to have the rice granules intact, while others like it soupier. Congee is prepared by boiling rice in a large amount of liquid for an extended period of time, until the rice has softened significantly and becomes soupy. Different ingredients are added to elevate the congee, like vegetables, meat and aromatics. A classic way to serve congee is with spring onions, a dash of soy sauce and white pepper. The type of rice used in congee can vary too, from short grain to long grain, depending on preference as well as regional and cultural influences. Traditionally, it is made on a pot over a stove, but many modern rice cookers today have a ‘porridge’ setting.
Congee is widely popular among the community for the comfort and warmth it brings to the eater and is found in many Asian restaurants and is prepared by most Asian households. It is also a staple ‘sick food’ for many because it is easily digestible and warm. According to Chinese medicine, the kidney ‘qi’ supplies the ‘fire’ for warming up the entire digestive system where the warmth from the congee is nourishing and helps to support the kidney ‘qi’ functions.
Polenta is an Italian dish consisting of boiled grain mush, however, it is now often made with cornmeal. It can be served as a hot porridge, but can also be solidified as a loaf and served either fried, grilled or baked. Polenta is a staple dish in Northern Italy, Sweden and the Balkan Peninsula of Southeast Europe.
Before the introduction of maize (corn) from America, polenta was prepared with a variety of starchy ingredients such as spelt, chestnut and chickpeas. Historically, polenta is associated with the lower class and is an essential part of a commoner’s diet.
The key in preparing polenta is to properly gelatinization the starch. Cornmeal, or any grain of choice, is cooked in 4 or 5 times of its volume of liquid with constant stirring. A well-made polenta should be soft, moist, and creamy. Polenta is used as a source of carbohydrates in a meal, much like rice, it serves as a blank canvas that can be paired with any topping of choice. A common way of serving polenta is with a pasta sauce like a marinara.
Nombu Kanji is a version of porridge originating from Kadayanallur, a city in the state of Tamil Nadu in India. It consists of raw rice, dal, coconut milk, vegetables, and sometimes meat, which are cooked together into smooth and velvety porridge. This porridge is a customary dish during the month of Ramadhan for Muslims, where it is eaten to break fast in the evenings. Its flavour is like that of biryani, another staple Indian dish.
The preparation of Nombu Kanji begins from the tempering of spices, a simple but fundamental step in Indian cooking as it helps to release the essential oil in the spices to enhance flavours. Whole dried spices (cinnamon sticks, cumin, star anise) and sometimes fresh ingredients (tomatoes, onions, garlic) are roasted briefly before being poured together with hot oil or ghee (clarified butter). Rinsed and dried rice is ground with dal to a coarse texture, then added to the tempered spice and cooked until aromatic. Water is added to the pot and cooked until a soupy consistency, the finished off with coconut milk.
Like Polenta, grits are prepared using cornmeal. So, what makes these two porridges different? Well, polenta is made using yellow corn, hence its distinct yellow colour. On the other hand, grits is normally made using white corn, also known as Hominy, which is corn that has been treated with alkaline water in a process called nixtamalization. This is where the husks are removed, resulting in a finer and smoother cornmeal. Compared to polenta, grits have a smoother and softer texture, though these dishes are considered ‘cousins’. Grits are prepared in a similar fashion as polenta, where the cornmeal is cooked in a large amount of liquid for a lengthy period.
Grits originated from the Southern United States, but is now well known and loved by most of the US population. This dish was first introduced by the Native American Muscogee tribe using a corn similar to Hominy. American colonists adopted this dish from the natives, and it quickly became a beloved American staple dish. The name grits came from the old English word ‘grytt’, which meant ‘coarse meal’.
Grits are a prominent dish in Southern diners, oftentimes accompanied with cheese or a generous dollop of butter, and served alongside fried catfish, shrimp and salmon croquettes.
Champorado is a sweet chocolate porridge found in Filipino cuisine, and the cousin of the classic Mexican beverage, Champurrado. It is the ultimate breakfast food for many Filipinos, usually cooked in big batches.
Champurrado was brought into the Philippines during the Spanish colonization era. Over the years, the people of the Philippines have found ways to make this dish their own, such as replacing the masa, a kind of Mexican corn dough, with sticky rice. The main ingredients of this dish consist of glutinous rice, sugar, milk or coconut milk and cocoa powder, though tableya (pure cocoa blocks) is traditionally used. Its cooking method is similar to other rice porridges, boiling the rice in water until the desired texture, then adding chocolate and finally some milk to finish.
A common way to pair Champorado is with salted dried fish known as ‘daing’ or ‘tuyo’. The saltiness of the fish contrasts the sweetness of the rice porridge perfectly, bringing a balanced and unique flavour.
Genfo is a stiff porridge that is one of Ethiopia’s most iconic dishes. It’s very thick, almost dough like, and served in ring form with a dipping sauce in the middle. Its typically made from wheat, barley or maize flour and enhanced with a combination of niter kibbeh and berbere. Niter kibbeh is a type of clarified spiced butter widely used in Ethiopian cuisine. it is very similar to ghee but is simmered with various spices such as fenugreek, cumin, coriander and turmeric. Berbere is a staple Ethiopian spice blend, the name referring to chilli pepper itself.
The preparation for Genfo starts from adding a spiced flour mixture to boiling water, whilst stirring to create a thick paste. The mixture is transferred into a bowl, and a hole is created in the middle for the mixture of niter kibbeh and berbere to be added.
As you can see, there are countless variations of this timeless dish. Today, home cooks and professional chefs alike have taken porridge cooking into their own hands, incorporating modern techniques and unique ingredients into this simple dish. The magic of it? The possibilities are endless. Overall, the beauty of porridge can be summed up to its simplicity. It’s how something so straightforward and earnest can bring you so much comfort and joy.