In Ayurveda it is said – the more complicated life gets, the simpler your meals should be. It was one of the very first lessons I took to my heart, and have been living by it ever since. Everything we perceive through our everyday experiences and contact with the world using the five senses – smell, taste, sound, vision, touch – needs to be digested by our body and mind. And honestly, this year has overwhelmed all the senses, withdrawing the strength from the digestive system to help us mentally cope with the world in 2020. The need for simplicity, easiness and slowness of life has never been more intense.
The more complicated life gets,
the simpler your meals should be.
One of the meals I intuitively reach for when simplicity is needed is a soft porridge, using various grains and playing with spices, medicinal herbs, condiments and side dishes. This easy-to-make, one-pot dish has been enjoyed for thousands of years all over the world, with different grains and additions varying through different cultures. But their underlying wisdom is the same – we need simple, nurturing and digestive-harmonising meals as the foundation of good health and long life.
What is Kanji or Congee
Known as kanji in Tamil (India), jook and congee in Chinese, or porridge in English, it is a thick gruel made of grains (mostly rice). Cooked for long, or even overnight (fantastic if you have a slow cooker), the grain largely disintegrates, forming a thick and mildly sweet gruel. As such, it digests very easily, and it is often served with side dishes as a favourite breakfast of the East. By carefully combining specific grains, adding particular vegetables, meats, broths, fat or various potent herbs and powders, there are medicinal porridges for every type of ailment. Plain or with the additions kanji, congee or as we call it in the West – simple porridge, becomes a powerful medicine used for both – prevention and healing purposes.
Health Benefits of Kanji or Congee
- grains contain a high amount of B vitamins, including niacin, thiamine, and folate – all of which support the nervous system, make our nails and hair strong and shiny;
- grains offer a good source of minerals, such as zinc, iron, magnesium, and manganese – mostly important for our immunity response, blood quality and skin condition;
- whole grains contain bran, which is a fibre many of which act as prebiotics (the beneficial gut bacteria thrive on these), promoting bowel movement and gentle intestinal cleansing
Speaking Ayurvedically (I call it the language of your direct body experience):
- kanji calms the aggravated vata dosha – strengthens the nervous system, calms the overactive or anxious mind, softens the digestive tract, promotes bowel movement, improves skin, nail and hair health;
- balances the excess pitta dosha – purifies the blood, reduces inflammations, soothes different skin conditions, such as eczema and psoriasis, it is beneficial for acid reflux, ulcers, promotes hormonal balance and improves fertility;
- it is easy to digest, thus kindling the digestive fire – Agni. As a result, the appetite for healthy foods improves, meals are digested better and the waste material is excreted faster.
- promotes production of Ojas – the essence of the immunity.
How to Make Simple Congee
This is the basic recipe I have been using for years now. It is the foundation for hundreds of “upgrades” I have made during all this time, accommodating the needs of the ever changing body. Whether I’ll go for a sweet version by adding dried fruits, coconut flakes and nuts, or blanching some leafy greens, adding a spoonful of fermented foods, and topping with toasted seeds, it is my all time favourite lift-me-up breakfast and calm-me-down type of supper. Being sweet in taste, soft, warm, and hydrating, congee is a perfect meal for all the Vata and Pitta gals out there. Taken in the morning, it strengthens the nervous system, softens the bowels, and gives a nice kick of glucose to keep you steadily flowing throughout the day.
TURMERIC KANJI OR CONGEE
- 1 cup of rice or any other grain of choice – I like to use wholegrain rice, basmati rice, amaranth, millet, barley or oats; often I’ll do a mix, such as millet and amaranth
- 4-6 cups water or broth – weaker your digestive tract is, more liquid you should use
- 2 pinches of rock salt
- 1 tablespoon ghee – olive oil or sesame oil for a variation
Additional ingredients – fantastic for a Vata dominated constitution, or during Autumn and Winter:
- 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
- a couple fresh ginger slices, or 1/4 teaspoon ginger powder
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- blanched leafy green vegetables, like spinach | chard | kale | mustard greens
- fermented vegetables, like kimchi | sauerkraut | pickles
- seaweeds, like nori strips
- toasted seeds, like sunflower, pumpkin or flax seeds
- tamari soy sauce, umeboshi vinegar, lime juice
- chopped dates
- toasted nuts, like almonds
- a drizzle of coconut milk or cream
- coconut flakes
Ideally, the grains should be soaked in lukewarm water with a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar for a few hours ahead of cooking. This helps with digestibility by removing the phytic acid naturally present in grains that acts as enzyme inhibitor (doesn’t allow the body’s digestive enzymes to fully break down the grains).
Drain and wash the grains well. Place them in a pot, or even better use a slow cooker if you have one. Add 4-6 times more water, and if desired – turmeric powder, ginger slices, cumin seeds and a stamp-sized piece of kombu seaweed. Bring to a boil, then allow to simmer over low heat for at least 40 minutes and up to an hour until the grains disintegrate. The consistency should be that of a thin gruel.
If using a slow cooker, you can prepare the grains and water in the evening, and allow the congee to cook for 3 hours on a low setting. In the morning you will have a hot breakfast waiting for you.
Once cooked, add ghee and salt. Stir well and serve hot with or without the toppings.
*If you’re looking for something quicker to make , try another of my winter favourites – Winter Turmeric Oat Porridge.
Vata – pacifying
Pitta – pacifying
Kapha – aggravating; you can use barley, add more ginger and keep the grain to water ratio 1:4.