Kanji to Congee

One of the enduring memories of my childhood is of having to slurp down thin rice gruel whenever I fell ill. Kanji, as rice gruel is called in Malayalam was pretty much the staple food of Kerala for a very long time. But, by the late sixties & early seventies, it had reduced to being the staple food of the less-well-off or the food one had while ill. Of course, it has now been fully supplanted in Kerala by Porotta & Chilly Beef but that is another story.

Cut to another time & another land – seated at the breakfast table. A chinese waiter points to a menu & asks whether I would like to have Congee for breakfast. I decide to try it. Turns out to be the same rice gruel, except it has bits of various meats floating around.

It became clear that the Kanji of my childhood and the Congee of my travels were basically the same thing. So I decided to do some historical research to figure out where it all started. The question was : did Kanji start in kerala and move to china or vice-versa?

The answer turned out to be a surprising one – neither. It seems, Kanji was an ancient dish of the Tamil people. During the colonial conquests of the Tamils, Kanji was shipped out to South East Asia. It struck firm roots in the Malay lands, where it was picked up by Chinese settlers. It is these Malay chinese who took the Tamil kanji to their homeland and made it Congee.

Tamil culture is one of the most ancient in the world. With their strong history of colonising adventures across Asia, the Tamils have spread Indian cultural idioms across the East Asian region. Kanji is just one of those. So, if you have’nt had Kanji yet, do try it. It is vintage India.

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8 thoughts on “Kanji to Congee

  1. In the same vein.
    Here are some Indian (Tamil (T)/Hindi(H)/ Malayalam(M): food names and their equivalents in Spanish (S) Portughese (P) and French (F).

    Naranga (T/M) = Naranja (S/P) – Citrus
    Arisi (T/M) = Aroz (S/P) – Rice
    Savala ( M) = Cebolla- (S/P) – Onion
    Pera (T/M) = Pera (S/P) – Guava
    Berengen (H) = Berenjena – Brinjal ( Eggplant)
    Bamblimoos (M/?) = Pamplemousse (F) – Grapefruit

    No wonder Mexicans swear that Mango is indigenous to Mexico and Indians insist chillies were here long before Columbus or Da Gamma.

  2. Hey Avira – this is fascinating stuff. I always wondered where ‘bamblimoos’ ever came from. And when you suggest that ‘Baingan’ of the Hindi heartland has its provenance elsewhere, you are starting to shake foundations!

  3. This is the food usually kids eat before going to school instead of breakfast. It keeps you active rest of the day. At least I used to have it as a kid.

  4. I was about research about this and came across this site. I encountered Congee first time in Singapore. Recently I found it in the menu of an authentic Chineese restaurant in San Francisco Bay Area. I knew both had a connection and I also wanted to know where it originated. I am also amazed that the achappam of kerala was sold in a Chineese takeout place nearby. I thought the olden Chineese-Kerala trade might have exported or imported those items together with Cheena Chatti and Cheena Vala.

    Hari Gangadharan

  5. I recently went to a resturant ( hong kong based cuisine) and they also had congee. I discussed this relationship between kanji and congee to him. Surprisingly what he said was, mixing meat with congee is not traditional. The traditional way is to eat congee with beans ( similar to kanji and payar). We also agreed that this was mechanism to prevent the wastage of food, when refrigeration was not prevalent
    Very interesting

    Sujith

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