Nothing says Chinese comfort food like a hot bowl of congee (粥). You can have it for breakfast, lunch or dinner. It’ll cure a hangover, it’ll cleanse your soul; and best of all, it tastes sensational. But if the thought of consuming a bowl of boiled rice makes you worry about carbs, then (a) you don’t appreciate Chinese food as much as you think you do; and (b) you’ll be handed a plate of the deep-fried garbage we give tourists.
Here’s a selection of some of the places you’ve just got to try, and places you should absolutely avoid… or try anyway to have an interesting story to tell.
41 Dixon Street, Sydney
Located in the heart of Chinatown, Super Bowl has been around for decades and is a bit like the McDonald’s of congee. The flavours are right, they’re a bit stingy on the ingredients, the tea is rubbish and the place is genuinely unsanitary; but that won’t matter when you’re craving congee at 1am and you only have a few bucks to your name. Cheap and nasty.
10 Dixon Street, Sydney
A slightly upmarket Hong Kong-style diner on the north end of Dixon Street, Old Town’s congee is generously-sized, rich and velvety. Their century egg and salted pork congee at Old Town is second-to-none, with sparing bursts of flavour coming through from the pork and spring onions. The fish congee is pretty special, too, with generous fillets that fall apart with little effort in your mouth. Make sure you order a side of youtiao (油條) or spring onion pancakes (蔥油餅) to make it a proper feast.
Tim Ho Wan
1 Railway Street, Chatswood
This place might have the best barbecue pork buns in town, but truthfully the same can’t be said of anything else on the menu. In fact, several dishes don’t even taste right. Their Hobbit-sized bowl of century egg and salted pork congee is one of them. Their service might be really fast, but they’re nowhere near the value for money that earned their Hong Kong counterparts a Michelin rating. Weirdly disappointing.
5, Rhodes Shopping Centre, 1 Rider Boulevard, Rhodes
Just been dragged to a marathon session at IKEA? A bowl of congee at Rhodes Phoenix will make the pain go away… at least until you get home and start building. Served during yum cha hours, the congee at Rhodes Phoenix is decent but not spectacular. The trolley ladies are super-stingy with the spring onions, which is odd because they’re pretty cheap to begin with. Don’t be afraid to demand more.
KIN by Us
1A/2 Saunders Close, Macquarie Park
This oddball fusion café has just one type of congee on the menu, but it’s a beauty: congee with pork floss and spring onions. You also get youtiao (油條) that’s perfectly hard on the outside and soft on the inside; and a side of shredded ginger and chilli for a little extra punch (well, not that little. It’s actually quite hot). The congee is slightly runnier than what you’d get at Old Town, but it’s still loaded with flavour because they use chicken stock as part of the base. A soft-boiled egg hidden within the congee also provides a rich, creamy surprise, though for my money it’s completely unnecessary.
Hong Kong Diner
Spice Alley, Kensington Street, Chippendale
You’d think the people behind Chef’s Gallery could produce a decent bowl congee, but theirs is amongst the worst. Their century egg and salted pork congee is dull and watery, with flavourless slices of pork and a frankly bizarre combination of shredded lettuce, ginger, spring onions and coriander mixed through the bowl. Weirder still is the youtiao (油條), which are cut up and then deep-fried into impenetrable blocks. Don’t even get me started on the staff – some of them don’t even speak Chinese.
The ABCs of ABCs is a light-hearted attempt to explain the ins and outs of Australian-Born Chinese culture for Caucasians who can’t make any sense of it. There’s a lot of idiosyncratic behaviour I get asked the same questions about, so I’m doing my best to answer them. Call it my way of bridging the gap between cultures.