There is little glamour in porridge. It may be historically significant, nutritious, and cost efficient, but it isn’t an inherently trendy food. This is no surprise really, considering the fact that it is difficult to make a bowl of lumpy, beige, amorphous goo look appealing to the uninitiated eater. Most people see porridge as an emergency food – something to cook when there’s nothing left in the pantry besides a few odd scoopfuls of wheat and a bit of salt. So it might seem funny that porridge is rising in the culinary ranks.
There is nothing new about porridge. Humans have been turning various cereals into porridge for nearly 6,000 years, well before society decided that grains needed to be hulled, ground, leavened, risen, baked, and sliced in order to be palatable. Cooking whole grains in liquid requires only minimal effort and results in a greater total yield than milling and processing grain into flour and bread. Grain could be harvested, dried, and stored to provide food year-round, and more valuable foods such as fruits, nuts, and spices could be added when available to create infinite variations on the base dish.
The rising popularity of bread – a more expensive, labor-intensive, and delicious grain-based dish – spelled disaster for porridge’s place in food culture. Where bread has seen countless waves of innovation, such as slicing and electric toasting, porridge has mostly been frozen in time, its recipes unchanged for thousands of years. Now, however, new generations of chefs seem to be taking those age-old recipes and revitalizing them with modern techniques and elements.
Chefs like Lasse Andersen of Grød, a restaurant and store in Denmark, are working to show people that porridge deserves more respect than most people are willing to give. Grød, Danish for porridge, is described as “the world’s first grødbar (porridge bar)” – a testament to thousands of years of humans boiling grains. To break away from the notion that porridge is a bland, unexciting dish reserved for the sick or the poor, Andersen is incorporating modern cooking techniques, unique ingredients, and fresh ideas into the traditional dish.
Andersen has also taken it upon himself to expand the definition of porridge to incorporate a broader range of cuisines. “Basically everything that is cooked together,” said Andersen,” let it be berries, rice or oats, is porridge in our culture.” Sticking to the idea that any dish involving cooking grains in liquid can be called a porridge, Grød serves Italian inspired risotto and Chinese style congee alongside more traditional rolled oat and grain porridges.
On my recent quest towards personal culinary sovereignty – moving away from store bought, prepared foods, and focusing on making my own simple dishes – I have found modern porridge to be an elusive beast. Beyond the paper tube of instant oatmeal, my pantry rarely holds any ingredients to put together a porridge worthy of a hearty weekend breakfast or simple dinner.
Growing up, porridge was a fairly common meal for me. Cream of Wheat, a boxed porridge mix consisting of milled semolina that I often topped with a pat of butter and maple syrup, was a breakfast staple. After coming down with a stomach bug while traveling through Thailand years ago, I became an accidental rice porridge aficionado. Two weeks of nothing but soy sauce flavored congee and Coca-Cola helped me understand why the simple Asian breakfast dish is such a popular folk remedy for mild illness.
The rice-based congee (or jook), a simple, light porridge that remains a popular across Asia is just one example of porridge’s versatility. The basic recipe involves boiling rice to the point where the grains begin to break down into a uniform mush. With this method, a small amount of rice is easily turned into a surprisingly satisfying meal, especially on a cold winter morning. Regional variability accounts for a wide range of congee varieties. A traditional Chinese congee, for example, is often topped with white pepper, soy sauce, pickled vegetables, and occasionally eggs, meat, or tofu. The Thai version incorporates minced pork, fried garlic, and ginger, and Japanese variations can be topped with salmon, fish eggs, or pickled plums.
If rice and plums doesn’t sound like enough breakfast fuel to get your morning started, a traditional European porridge, such as Noel McMeel’s Steaming Farmhouse Porridge from The Irish Pantry might do the job. This hearty blend of rolled oats, ground wheat, oat bran, and raisins flavored with brown sugar and cinnamon has everything a chilly morning requires. The genius in an oatmeal-based porridge like this one is that all of the ingredients can be mixed together in a large batch and stored for weeks; single-serving breakfasts are as easy as mixing a scoop of dry ingredients with twice as much water in a pot.
Raisins and oats still not enough to substitute for your daily six-egg Denver omelet with French fries, pancakes, bacon, toast, and a side of waffles? Up the ante with an all-American breakfast porridge complete with maple-candied bacon, hash-browned potatoes, three kinds of oats, and a fried egg. This sweet, salty, and smoky breakfast contains every important food group, and goes great with a cup of black coffee and an extra side of bacon.
Porridge has all the intrinsic requirements to be a trendy food – down-to-earth ingredients, cultural significance, substantial health benefits, and endless possibilities for overly fussy toppings. Could porridge go the way of modern frozen yogurt, with patrons operating self-serve porridge nozzles and paying by the ounce? Not likely, but there’s certainly enough innovation coming out of places like Grød to help bring your ancestors’ age-old porridge recipe into the 21st century.
As with most porridges, the beauty of congee lies in the infinite number of customization options. The recipe can be as simple as overcooking rice, or as complex as preparing dozens of individual side dishes for toppings.
1 part uncooked rice (or about 2 parts cooked rice)
4 parts water
A pinch of salt
Combine the rice and liquid in a large pot, bring to a boil and simmer until the rice completely breaks down and absorbs all of the liquid (20-40 minutes). Add salt to taste. Serve hot.
For a Chinese-style preparation, substitute chicken or vegetable stock for the cooking liquid and add two bone-in, skin-on chicken legs to the pot. After cooking, remove the chicken legs and separate the meat from the bones and skin before returning it to the porridge. Season the porridge with white pepper and soy sauce to taste, and top each bowl with Chinese pickled vegetables (such as zhacai or mustard leaf), bamboo shoots, and chili sauce.
Irish Farmhouse Porridge
2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup wheat farina
½ cup oat bran
2½ ounces raisins
½ cup packed dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
Combine all of the dry ingredients and store in an air-tight container for up to one month. To prepare, combine 1 part dry mix with 2 parts water in a heavy saucepan and heat. After boiling, reduce the mixture to a simmer, cover, and cook until the liquid has been fully absorbed by the grains.
Note: Wheat farina can be found in any grocery store, often branded as Cream of Wheat or Malt-O-Meal.
Recipe from The Irish Pantry by Noel McMeel
The All-American Home Run Breakfast Porridge USA
⅓ cup rolled oats
⅓ cup bulgur wheat
⅓ cup steel cut oats
⅓ cup Quaker quick-cook oats
1 potato, finely diced
4 slices of thick cut bacon
4 tablespoons real maple syrup, divided
Shredded cheddar cheese (optional, but recommended)
Salt and black pepper, to taste
For the porridge base: Combine the rolled oats, bulgur wheat, and steel cut oats with 2½ cups of water in a heavy saucepan. Bring the mix to a boil, cover, and reduce heat to a simmer. After 25 minutes, add the quick-cook oats, stir, and remove from heat.
For the potato: Heat oil in a frying pan over a medium-high flame, add the finely diced potato seasoned lightly with salt and cook while stirring until the potatoes are evenly browned and aromatic.
For the bacon: Line a small baking tray (for a toaster oven) or a shallow baking pan (for a traditional oven) with aluminum foil. Place the bacon, a small amount of black pepper, and 2 tablespoons of syrup in the tray and mix well to distribute. Allow the mixture to sit while preheating the oven to 350 degrees F. Cook the bacon for 20-40 minutes, checking regularly after 20 minutes for crispiness. After the desired crispness has been achieved, carefully transfer the bacon slices to a wire rack to cool.
For the egg: Fry with cooking oil of your choice – runny yolk is strongly suggested.
Place the porridge mix on the bottom, followed by a layer of potatoes. Pour 1-2 tablespoons of maple syrup over the potatoes, then place the fried egg on top. If you’re using cheese, put it on the egg. Break the bacon into a few pieces and balance that over the egg as well. A bit of ketchup on top finishes this beautiful, patriotic dish but is an optional ingredient. Don’t serve it with fruit, juice, milk, vegetables, or anything containing “vitamins”. A side of waffles, pancakes, and more fried eggs is acceptable.
Serves 2 Americans
Photos by Rachel Wisniewski.