Local Delight 101: Teochew Porridge Dishes To Try & A Brief History

Local Delight 101: Teochew Porridge Dishes To Try & A Brief History

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Simple But Significant, Discover This Rice Porridge's Humble History Alongside Classic Teochew Porridge Dishes To Try

Nobody needs an introduction to a classic bowl of Chinese porridge. A humble bowl of comfort food, porridge is a quintessential staple in Chinese cuisine that spans back to more than 3,000 years ago.

Easy to eat and comprising simple ingredients, and often paired with equally economical side dishes, there’s nothing more soothing than a hot bowl of steaming congee – especially when you’re sick or feeling a little under the weather.

Plus, because of the ease of which it can be cooked, porridge is a great food for a solo dish when you’re in need of an authentic recipe, but is also perfect for large spreads when relatives or family are visiting!

Teochew Muay. Photo by Freepik.

There are many different types of porridge, which also mask different cooking styles and preparation methods, due to regional differences in mainland China.

However, one undeniable kind of porridge that you’ll be able to find easily in hawker food centres or restaurants is the notorious Teochew porridge. Modest and elevated by its side dishes, this dish is well-known and well-loved across our entire country.

So, let’s find out more about how exactly this favourite comfort food came to be, and what kinds of Teochew porridge dishes you can find locally!

Raw rice before cooking. Photo by Suki Lee.

The origins of Teochew porridge and how it arrived in Singapore

Originating from the Chaoshan, Guangdong, this unassuming rice porridge is a hallmark of Teochew food also known as Teochew muay in its native dialect, or Chaozhou porridge in Mandarin.

In Teochew cuisine, the dish is traditionally eaten plain or with very little seasoning – like soy sauce – for breakfast, but can also be eaten for lunch or dinner. In the latter cases, it’s usually served with a variety of side dishes.

Due to migration to Thailand and British Malaya in the late 18th century to early 19th century, the dish has since made its way to our shores as a result. With some adaptations to better serve local tastes, Teochew porridge has since remained a staple – if not a favourite – amongst the general public for as long as most of us can remember.

What is the difference between Teochew porridge and Hokkien porridge?

While porridge isn’t a new concept to any Chinese cuisine, be it Teochew, Cantonese, Hokkien or more, all these different regions generally have varying ways of cooking their porridge, moulding it to their own signature style.

However, because Teochew and Hokkien dialects are very closely linked and often grouped together under a subbranch of the overall Chinese language, it’s understandable that we’d naturally wonder whether they also share the same cooking methods, especially for a staple dish.

That having been said, though, their porridge dishes are markedly different. Generally, Teochew porridge requires more water compared to Hokkien-style porridge – also known as kiam buay or savoury porridge – which usually has a thicker consistency overall.

Finally, Hokkien porridge also abides by the traditional means of making porridge, which involves boiling rice at a low heat for a prolonged amount of time, whereas – surprise, surprise – Teochew porridge actually does not, and can even be completely cooked within about 20 minutes.

What rice grains are used to make Teochew porridge?

The rice is a vital element for Teochew chefs to ensure they serve up the best Teochew porridge, and ideally should be freshly harvested rice.

This is because fresh rice is more fragrant than “old rice” that might have been stored away for some time. In addition, freshly harvested rice grains are also starchier, and this helps the porridge liquid thicken faster as it’s being cooked. As they’re fresher, the rice grains also better maintain their structure throughout the cooking process to deliver that chewy character that we know and love.

This also means that, when you get your single-serve Teochew porridge to go, it’s more advisable to use a non-stick saucepan or a good-quality casserole to heat it up, rather than simply popping it into the microwave in a bowl, to retain that enjoyable texture and taste.

Can I make my own Teochew porridge from scratch?

While we might not have access to recent harvests, the core of every Teochew porridge is the muay (or mooi), and so the answer is 100% yes you can!

Keep in mind, though, that the way to cook this porridge dish involves a special way of traditional cooking that doesn’t involve your household rice cooker.

In fact, Teochew porridge is extremely different from other types of Chinese porridge in its cooking method, which usually requires the rice to be cooked in liquid at low temperatures for extended periods of time. 

Instead, the porridge is made by boiling rice grains in water, usually in a large pot. While the pot is boiling, you have to stir the rice constantly with a wooden spoon until the starch starts to be released (explanation here). Then, you have to allow your rice gruel mix to continue cooking in the residual heat from the pot.

This will make your rice soft and tender, but retain its form as complete grains to give it that springy, chewy texture that we love in a bowl of Teochew porridge. The muay is usually cooked with minimal to zero seasoning, since it’s usually served that way to truly elevate the Teochew porridge dishes that come with it. And voila, that’s how you’ll be able to make a Teochew porridge dish that even grandma will approve of!

Fun fact: the starchy, chalky-looking water that’s used here is known as auum in Teochew, which is believed to have healing properties.

Common Teochew porridge dishes found in Singapore. Photo by Leon Kwang.

Types of Teochew porridge dishes you can find in Singapore 

The best side dishes tend to be generally savoury in nature, but there are many varieties of what kinds of tasty dishes can complement it – seeing as the porridge itself is an easy base to start with.

Now, as Teochew porridge’s key is the plain rice porridge, it has a natural taste that can be described as mildly sweet. That’s where the side dishes, translated literally to mean “mixed savouries”, come in. As can be expected to balance out the flavour, these side dishes are therefore usually savoury in their palette.

Compared to traditional Teochew food, our accompanying assortment of Teochew porridge side dishes generally use ingredients we’re familiar with and love, and can range from small plates to entire meals.

Let’s start with the basics...

There is a basic set of side dishes, usually consisting of preserved items, that are expected to be served with the porridge.

Such dishes usually comprise preserved mustard, salted egg or salted duck eggs, and salted fish, along with a salty relish that’s commonly known in Singapore and Malaysia as hae bee hiam – an aromatic mixture made of grated dried shrimp, chili pepper, shallots, garlic, and spices.

Preserved vegetables are also one of the more basic porridge dishes, usually constituting pickled vegetables, preserved radish or fermented beancurd.

Stir-fried long bean. Photo by Eric Elijah Lim.

Mixing in your ever-essential vegetable dishes

Today, more dishes have been added to the general mix, but one of the primary ones remain vegetable dishes. These help to seamlessly include your daily dose of fibre, but also lends a more robust taste to the otherwise plain porridge.

Because of this, the main vegetables used are usually stir-fried dishes, such as stir-fried water spinach or stir-fried long bean with minced pork. However, a large variety of everyday vegetables can be used to enhance the dish, ranging from bitter gourd, long beans, bean curd, and fried broccoli or eggplants.

Preserved mustard greens. Photo by john paul low.

More complex vegetable dishes such as preserved radish omelette, fried pumpkin, or preserved veggies with fried vermicelli are also used to up that crunch factor and add a new element to the dish.

Meatier, protein-filled rice porridge meals 

Of course, protein – usually in the form of meat – is a great way to make it a well-balanced dish.

Generally, this is added in the form of braised dishes to give a richer overall flavour to the meal and add gravy, or kuah, to the rice porridge. This can either be a kind of meat such as braised duck or braised pork. Braised tofu is also a popular alternative for vegetarian consumers.

However, other forms of protein like goose, steamed minced meat like minced pork, salted fish, different kinds of tofu, fish cake, peanuts, lor bak, or even pork innards such as pork liver and intestines can be easily substituted here. Each of these dishes brings about a different textural experience and flavour, depending on your preference. 

Make it a grand meal with steamed fish, roast or fried pork belly, and more

Unlike its humble beginnings, Teochew muay is a widely accepted dish even when it comes to elaborate family gatherings.

Here, the porridge is actually rendered a side dish for the main star of the show, since its clean-tasting mouthfeel helps neutralise the usually-decadent dishes. You can expect it to often be paired with extravagant dishes such as steamed fish, pork belly, century egg, just to name a few!

Simple pleasures with a simple bowl of porridge

With all that said, it’s easy to see and understand why this unassuming little bowl has become not just an indispensable part of Singaporean cuisine, but a simple pleasure we all cherish.

So, the next time you get a bowl of Teochew porridge for takeaway, don’t forget to enjoy every last slurp and reheat it with the quality cookware – be it a trusty saucepan, or top-tier casserole – it deserves. Alternatively, if you’re planning on whipping it up from scratch, remember to use the proper cooking equipment to do so, and enjoy the process while you’re at it!

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