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Some like it hot (breakfast, that is)

Photo by Gabe Lefferts

After graduating from college, I spent the latter half of 2015 as a residential volunteer, serving in the kitchen of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Woodstock, N.Y.

This experience was quite interesting because, for one, living at the monastery was very different from my previous years in college. 

But more relevant to this article (and to the job I’d been assigned), I’m not a cook.

Granted, I wasn’t exactly the head chef, but I was given some responsibility and quickly had to pick up a thing or two.  

For one week in October, more than 100 people participated in a series of teachings given for a Chinese audience.

After the first couple of mornings, fast-paced (and probably very stressed) nuns from Taiwan and China who organized the event realized that there was a problem: The morning kitchen crew simply did not know how to appease the dietary cravings of a group of 120-some Chinese pilgrims.

The morning after this realization, I arrived in the kitchen, 6 a.m. sharp, and found it already bustling as the nuns prepared breakfast.

Despite the language barrier, I was still able to watch what they were doing and help in miscellaneous ways.

“Orange — chop?” I might have asked, holding a carrot and making a chopping motion.

Each morning, the newly reinforced kitchen crew made, among other items, a hot cereal called congee. There are a lot of variations on this dish, but its main ingredients are rice and vegetables. 

Now that’s not what people in Western cultures traditionally eat in the morning, but I came to love it.

The recipe has a wide margin of improvisation, but this is how we did it. You’ll want to adjust your proportions; this version makes enough for about 20 people.

First, cook 6 or 7 cups of brown rice. Then soak a cup of uncooked brown rice in water overnight. In the morning, put the uncooked rice in a large pot of water. Turn on the heat and, after a few minutes, add the cooked rice. 

The reason for having a small amount of uncooked rice is it will stabilize and slow the rate at which the hot water is absorbed into the already-cooked rice. Adding the cooked rice earlier rather than later will make the final product more gooey or mushy as opposed to having firmer rice. The texture is up to you.

While the rice and water are heating, begin chopping and cooking vegetables with oil. At the monastery we used a wok, but a griddle or any other pan will work fine.

This recipe calls for at least two vegetables: one red and one green. We typically used red bell peppers, celery and carrots. A soft texture is better for the cereal. (Soft veggies, I learned, are a defining characteristic of Chinese cooking.)

Once the veggies are thoroughly cooked, drop them into the pot of water with the cooking rice. 

Add peeled and chopped raw ginger. Salt to taste. 

Leave it on the stove and stir it frequently until the flavors are sufficiently mixed and you like the texture of the rice. Keep in mind that it will become less runny and more gooey as it cools. The whole process should take about 30 or 40 minutes.

This particular version is on the side of savory and salty with a zing of ginger, but congee can be sweet instead.

For a sweet congee, instead of using veggies, use raisins, nuts, a small amount of brown sugar and perhaps even a drop of vanilla extract.