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This article is primarily about helping you prepare, make and enjoy tasty porridge. On a higher level, I would like to help you see this humble ‘soggy meal’ in a different light. Let’s explore the health ideas behind porridge and to seek out an appreciation and respect for the dietary wisdom of our ancestors.

If you have European ancestors, there is a good change they ate oatmeal in the morning. If you are from Asia, rice porridges or rice soup noodles are the staple morning cuisine. If your ethnicity originated from the America’s it was most likely corn meal, known as grits. From Persia, more wheat-meals. Many African’s traditionally start the day with millet porridge. Russian’s more from Barley porridge. Pacific Islanders eat taro root porridge.

‘Remember, the emphasis of Chinese dietary therapy is not high nutrition. It is first, ease-of-digestion… there is nothing easier for a human to digest than porridge!’

Why did so many ancient cultures believe porridge was so important?

This is interesting question for us, as our ancestors had no nutritional science and technology, so they relied on food availability, their senses – taste, smell, colour, texture and importantly how they feel after the meal. As in Chinese medicine, food can only be understood by eating it, usually in large quantities and over long periods of time. Successful cultures (i.e. the ones we have today) identified what works best for individuals and groups in both the short and long-term. They used this knowledge of their experience in creating food traditions, carefully selecting and making those foods and meals central and important to daily or seasonal life.

Look into what your ancestors ate for breakfast and try it for yourself. Using long-term observation, many cultures realized porridge gives you good sustainable energy and long-term good digestion. Good digestion maximizes Qi and Blood production from the foods you eat. Maximum Qi and Blood function gives you the greatest chance for order and harmony. The greatest order and harmony give you the strongest physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. Strong physical, emotional, spiritual wellbeing gives you, not only the chance to avoid ill health, but also the best chance to live out your true potential. Individuals who live closest to their true potentials are the foundation of successful cultures!

Why in Chinese medicine is white rice porridge considered to be the most beneficial base meal or staple?

This is a very interesting topic as Chinese Medicine has considered white rice porridge the most beneficial meal for human beings for over 3000 years. In modern nutrition from the West, it considers white rice porridge to be an over-cooked empty calorie starch that has little to no benefit, and some suggest that white rice is the cause of blood sugar disorders and weight gain.

Chinese medicine considers white rice to be the ‘holy grain’. Using the theory and methodology of Chinese medicine cost-benefit analysis, white rice is considered the easiest for humans to digest and produce clean energy. This goes back a long way – think about the original character for the all-important concept of Qi – vital energy, information and consciousness. The modern simplified character is 气 and the traditional character is 氣 – it is a rice grain with steam coming off it! Think about the word for porridge – 粥 zhōu – it is a rice grain between two woks.

Remember, the emphasis of Chinese dietary therapy is not high nutrition. It is first, ease-of-digestion… there is no grain easier on digestion than rice and there is nothing easier for a human to digest than rice porridge!

Let me give you an example to demonstrate the thought process. Brown rice is more considered more nutritious but more difficult to digest than white rice. In other words the potential of brown rice is to give us more energy but it is not as easy to digest and that also has implications to the assimilation and also long-term digestive health. White rice is considered easier on digestion and produces clean energy and seems to be ok for long-term digestive health. White rice is more nutritious than white rice porridge – grains broken and much higher water ratio. So, if you do not have a strong digestion or you are unwell etc, we sacrifice nutrition for the ease-of-digestion and go for the porridge. Think about traditionally and instinctively the first food you would feed a baby or a very weak and elderly person.

We need to consider if pure nutrition or our ability to digest and assimilate it is more important. This is what I call the cost-benefit. This is linked to our age, our health, our lifestyles and the balance of how much physical work compared to mental processing we are doing – these and more all effect our digestion. In the modern world, and considering our more sedentary lifestyles, I feel porridge is even more important than in the past.

If you go out to the great wall in China, one of the interesting finds from the scientific research is that one of the ingredients that made the mortar so strong was rice gruel. The Chinese culture was built on rice and rice porridge.


The Practical:

How To Make White Rice, Black Rice, Millet, or Other Heavy Grain Porridges

Step 1: Choose a pot that is most suitable:

  1. Material – Choose from ceramic, porcelain, glass, crock-pot, stainless steel – all with lid – thicker base pot best
  2. Size – bigger rather than smaller for porridge as there is lots of water (think about the size of a small rice cooker for 2-4 people, then large rice cooker for 4-6 people)

Step 2: Select your grain:

White rice (da mi), millet (xiao mi), black rice (zi mi), 8-treasure (ba bao zhou – can be bought in many places pre-mixed in supermarket, wet market or Chinese food supplies).

Step 3: Use 1/3 cup of dry grain for each person (i.e. 1-cup grain makes for 3 people). Remember that with the millet and black/wild rice you should always add 1/3 white rice (i.e 2/3-cup black rice, 1/3-cup white rice – total 1-cup – for 3 persons) to keep the texture smooth and silky

Wash and rinse well with cold water (once or twice) – cover the grains with water and massage with your hand, so all the cloudy liquid is discarded.

Step 4: Add clean water to the clean grain at a ratio of 7:1 (i.e 1-cup grain, 7 cups water).

Step 5: On medium heat, simply bring the grains and water to a boil, stirring occasionally. Once boiling, reduce heat to a simmer. Simmer for 20-30 minutes or until the grains have visibly broken. Then, ready to eat or you can let sit as it stays warm and gets a little silkier with time.

How to Eat Grain Porridge?

Then comes the all-important choice of how to eat it. With the white rice and millet it is traditionally eaten with salty pickles (xian cai) – fresh from the market or in jars from the supermarket- and fermented tofu (zhang doufu). Eat the plain porridge while eating the salty/spicy pickles on the side to balance the bland with the strong flavours.

I personally love the spicy fermented soy beans (la ba dou) – 1-spoon full – or adding meat-floss (rou song) is delicious (and protein for the morning). Now, if that sounds too adventurous for you, you can simply add some fresh cut spring onions (xiao cong) or add sugar and even milk to the millet. In fact, the black rice porridge is traditionally taken with a big scoop of white sugar. Experiment a little. Remember, it is important that food looks good, smells good and tastes good for you!

These are all the simple porridges and there are many different types of very delicious porridges, it is a real comfort food! See below for fish porridge provided by Sue Zhou at The Hutong where I work in Beijing.

Note 1: If you have a modern rice-cooker with porridge function, or an ‘auto-cooker’ with soup or porridge function? Prepare with steps 1-4, then simply press the start button. Even better, prepare with steps 1-4 the night before and set the timer on the cooker so that it comes on an hour before you get up. When you wake up, your grains are cooked and the warming function is on and you are ready to eat at your convenience.

How To Make Oat Porridge

Step 1: Choose a pot that is most suitable:

  1. Material – Choose from ceramic, porcelain, glass, crock-pot, stainless steel – all with lid – thicker base pot best
  2. Size – bigger rather than smaller for porridge as there is lots of water (think about the size of a small rice cooker for 2-4 people, then large rice cooker for 4-6 people)

Step 2: Select your grain:

Oats come in many different forms and I consider more full, whole grain rolled cooking oats probably the best start. Steel cut and other heavier oat varieties are also very good, it is just that they can take a long time to cook and the different varieties take a little bit of local knowledge. Instant is already crushed and not as nourishing but still ok if you in a rush – no need to cook, more add boiling water and cover for 5-minutes).

Step 3: For average cooking oats I use roughly 2/3 cup for each person (i.e. 2-cups oats makes for 3 people). Depending on your oats determines the extent of washing/rinsing required. Cover the grains with water and massage with your hand, then discard the cloudy liquid.

Step 4: Add clean water at a ratio of 3:1 (i.e 1-cup grain, 3 cups water). I also add a healthy pinch of salt (e.g. half-teaspoon when cooking for 4 people) and a small stick of cinnamon. Note: I prefer to cook with water and add milk or butter later for creamy effect.

Step 5: On medium heat, bring the oats and water to a boil, stirring occasionally, to ensure they not sticking to the pot. Once boiling, turn off the heat and cover with lid.

After about 5 minutes the oats should be ready to eat but leaving them there covered for a longer time is also ok, and often makes them taste better. Go do your morning breathing and stretches and come back to them later.

How to eat Porridge?

Then comes the all-important choice of how to eat it and the choices with oats are seemingly infinite. The key is experimenting and finding something that looks, smells and tastes good to you. I personally prefer the traditional English way with a knob of butter, salt to taste and a dash of milk. My kids prefer the brown sugar (occasionally banana) and milk, and I feel that is ok, they are eating real porridge that tastes good. If you are not a big fan of the texture of porridge add toasted granola and nuts, dried fruit and crunchy items on top. You will be getting a much easier to digest and nourishing meal than granola and cold milk, and there lies the key. Try cutting up seasonal apples or pear and cooking it in with your porridge.

For lots of great porridge ideas see the Quaker Oats recipes – click here

Note: Oats are not suitable for the rice cooker or auto-cookers as they tend to boil over and make a real mess of the pot.

Extra Tips

  1. It is great if you can buy a ‘porridge-maker’, simply a modern rice-cooker that has a function to make zhou 粥 – it should have a switch or a different button to cook the porridge (not just a rice setting). To want to make things super easy, and a great investment for your health, buy the modern version with a digital display that also has a timer function so that you can set it up at night and when you wake up it is ready to go.
  2. When cooking porridge on the stove, the thicker the base of the pot the better, as the heat is transferred more slowly and evenly. Many gas stoves don’t have a low enough heat-setting so often you may need to keep an eye on it and add extra water occasionally… otherwise it is very difficult to clean the pot afterwards!
  3. Too much water is better than not enough when making porridge, and the pot a lot easier to clean.
  4. Oats are best done in a crock pot (ceramic or porcelain) or thicker stainless steel pot as they tend to be over-done or spill out of the auto rice-cookers. Keep an eye on them, easy to burn, best to bring to boil slowly and then turn off and put the lid on.
  5. It is better to have a salty breakfast than a sweet one. Think about traditional breakfasts and how they ate porridge. Whether it was the oats with a slap of butter, salt and a dash of milk or Asian porridges with salty and spicy condiments, or Persian porridge with lamb. In Chinese medicine it is most important to eat breakfast and if you can avoid sugary sweet start to the day, even better.
  6. Many of my clients eat porridge in winter and lighter cooler breakfasts in summer – note the difference in the way you feel and orientate yourself towards hot breakfasts all year round.
  7. Rice noodle soups are also very common and an acceptable replacement for porridge. The broth holds a key in this meal and passes all my breakfast checks – hot, soupy, grain based and delicious.
  8. If you are using corn, another good non-gluten grain, use ground corn (corn meal) as whole corn is a little difficult to digest. Think the Native American grits and how we can achieve a similar type of grain porridge.
  9. Many of the delicious porridges from the south of China have a very silky texture because they use crushed rice (pre-smashed) and you can get that from the market in some places or smash it yourself.
  10. For young kids you can blend the rice after it is cooked (i.e. broken) making it super velvety and easy on digestion. In fact, in times before formula, if the mother could not breastfeed – the water from congee was used to feed and strengthen the child.


Alex believes that low-carbohydrate diets leave people less emotionally stable and less grounded. Staples provide stability. Grains deeply nourish the earthly part of ourselves – our physical body – in order for our heavenly part – our consciousness – to stay well seated in our heart, where it should be to bring out our best.

In Chinese medicine philosophy, the daily rhythm and rituals hold the key to staying in balance. Breakfast represents the start and an opportunity to start well. As well as creating the energy required for the day, we are repetitively stoking the ‘digestive-fire’ with warm easy-to-digest foods creating the platform for good digestion.

Alex believes that ‘Zhou’ is like an ancient god of the stomach. Porridge is a secret ingredient for good digestion and that ‘glue’, that it produces, lines the stomach and intestines on a daily basis – supporting and facilitating good digestion. Good digestion means good Qi and Blood. Good Qi and Blood means you have a good chance of living out your full potential. Living your full potential means you are living in accordance with your design and living out your destiny. A simple, yet powerful, step to keep you on your path – porridge for breakfast every morning!

If you want to feel good, start the day with porridge!

A typical rice cooker that also has a timer and porridge/soup function. Perfect for preparing rice/millet porridges the night before, so you wake up and it is on warming ready to go!

Proactive health approaches start in the morning… or even the night before!

Congee with Fish & Ginger

Serves: 4


English Pinyin Chinese
100g rice (a cup of rice – smaller than American cup) dà mǐ 大米
1 fresh Fish (white fish: go for Lu Yu or Huang Yu) lú yú 鲈鱼
30g of pealed and minced ginger jiāng
3 spring onions (finely sliced) xiǎo cōng 小葱
Salt yán
Pepper huā jiāo 花椒


  1. Rinse the rice with cold water three times. Put it in a bag or a mortar and break the kernels. Put the broken kernels in a soup pan and add 2-litres of water, bring it to the boil and let it simmer for half an hour: stir occasionally, and if needed add more water.
  2. Fillet the fish: remove the bones and the skin and cut the fish in small slices and set aside for later use.
  3. When the congee looks creamy bring it to the boil, keep stirring: add in the raw fish and the minced ginger. The fish literally needs only a few minutes: when the translucent fish meat has turned white, turn off the fire. Serve the Congee in individual bowls, adding salt and pepper to taste, and top off with some spring onions, and croutons made from broken fried spring roll sheet, or a you tiao – fried bread-stick.

Fish is sweet and neutral, so a fish congee is an excellent source of nourishment to strengthen a weak Spleen and Stomach. If you have had digestive problems, or you have been feeling weak, or you are feeling weak or you are a new mother, this is great for you.

This recipe is a classic fish congee, great for promoting health and well-being. It has the proper proportions of carbohydrates (rice), protein (fish) and pungent herbs (ginger, spring onions, pepper) – and it tastes delicious!

Alex Tan

Alex Tan L.Ac is a licensed Acupuncturist. After completing his degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Alex lived and practiced Chinese Medicine for 10-years in Beijing, China. A native-born Australian, the son of his Australian mother and Chinese father, Alex's bi-cultural heritage helps him skillfully bridge Eastern and Western health perspectives. He believes the true power of Chinese medicine lies in a balanced approach towards prevention and treatment. Rooted in Chinese Medicine observation based theory & methodology over millenniums, Alex’s talent lies in delivering these Eastern healing modalities to his modern Western clients. Click here for more about Alex.


  • Hi! Well I guess I should have listened to you months ago.
    Since I stopped eating raw something in the morning, I am not having
    swollen lymphs.
    One morning I woke up with slightly swollen lymph and I had a few bites of hot
    quinoa and drank the herbs you gave me, and they went away within 1/2 hour!
    (that is the only time I have taken the herbs you gave me for my lymph so far)

    The one morning since seeing you that I gave into my craving for sheep milk yogurt
    and peaches, my lymphs swelled, and I felt yucky all day.

    thank you!

    • Alex Tan says:

      Holly, thanks for your comment and yes dampness in the body can be produced by too much cold and raw food. That is the key to a hot, soupy, easy-to-digest breakfast. Traditional cultures and diets understood this principle well. Happy that you have found porridge breakfast and so so much better than taking more herbs or medicines! Well done!

  • Tom says:

    Hi Alex,

    I found white rice helping with cold. I had cough for 2 weeks and when I started to eat white rice in big quantities then my disturbing cough stopped. I think it is something to do with damp which was reduced by eating rice. Correct me please if I’m wrong. Kind regards.

    • Alex Tan says:

      Tom, thanks for sharing! Regular use of an easy to digest staple can correct many imbalances. Carbohydrates tend to be damp producing to the system, however rice is also a diuretic and acts on the system in a less problematic way. Remember, the staple is important for long-term digestive health and the quality of the Blood, so we choose the easiest to digest and have it with regular meals, just like our ancestors did! Thanks again!

  • Hind Akkari says:

    What about steel cut oat congee ? Can I have it everyday ?

    • Alex Tan says:

      Hind, steel-cut oats fit very well into this idea of ideal breakfast. However, they are compact and nutritious and take much longer to cook. If not cooked properly can be difficult to digest. I know people who soak them overnight, but still tend to be long cooking time. Some say bring them to a boil at night and then turn off and let sit overnight and then next day you just need to reheat. Thanks!

  • Bonnie Feather says:

    Thank you for the detailed instructions! I am going to make porridges in one of my instant pots, which also has a porridge setting. I will get some broken rice when I am next in Phoenix, but in the meantime, is there a preference for long grain, short grain, sticky varieties, or what? I’m going to try Nishiki rice first, since that is what I have.

    Again, thank you.

    • Alex Tan says:

      Bonnie, thanks for your comments. Sounds great! Long-grain and short-grain both ok. More about where you were from. The Northern people eat short grain and southern people eat long grain. Nishiki rice great for porridge. The Hong Kong style of creamy porridge is done with broken rice. These days they put it in a sack and smash it with a stick. In the old days, you could buy the broken rice cheap as a waste product and some crafty people discovered, while it was not great rice, it made great porridge! It is very plain, so you can add some soy-sauce, sesame oil and fresh spring-onion. The Chinese would eat with pickles! Enjoy!

  • Jacob says:

    Thanks for this article, can you please shed some light on the issue I am having with understanding congee?:

    I struggle to understand how congee is supposed to give you the correct nutrition. I mean, a bowl full of congee would probably only be like 1 TBSP of rice which would only have like 15 calories and 3-5 grams of carbs. It is basically a bowl of water (of course it has other ingredients, but I struggle to see how a liquidy congee can provide the sustenance that a hearty stew or even just regular made rice as a side to steamed veg and a meat item)

    (no offence at all, I actually am loving congee as I just discovered it, I guess I am coming from a very western viewpoint on nutrition. I am also recovering from binge eating so I am very in limbo when it comes to portion and nutrient intake right now)

    How much would an actual serving size of congee be for the average adult? 1 cup of congee seems so little (even if it was just a side dish), I could easily eat a quart or 3 of the stuff if left to my own devices, just trying to understand so I can moderate my own portion control when I make it

    Currently, I have been weighing out 12 oz of congee (1:12 ratio with also 1/2 cup of steamed vegetables mixed in at the end) with 2 eggs or an avocado or tin of sardines. I don’t know if I am consuming too much or not enough food for my meal (as I said, I have a problem with portion control, and regular 2lbs binge eats)

    Thank you for any help you can give! I do plan on seeing a TCM doctor shortly for those issues (especially about creating a simple nutrition plan that i can follow to the letter, as i do better when my options are taken from me lol), but i still like to find out some things on my own first.

    • Alex Tan says:

      Jacob, thanks for your comments. Yes, it is difficult to understand in terms of calories. This is more about long-term observation and there is something about grains in water cooked that support the long-term health and function of the digestive system. Agreed, 12oz is too little and especially alone. In China, they use a different, larger size bowl than their rice bowls. More like 18oz and they would never have congee alone. First, you eat with pickles and an egg at minimum. Often, you would get a steamed bun or left over meats and vegetables. The ideal is the congee + some dense form of nutrition like you have been doing with the eggs or sardines. It is still a relatively light breakfast but should sustain you, you are right there, so if you are not making it to lunch time revise it. The other option is millet, they prefer that in the north where they don’t naturally have rice and that seems to be more sustaining. Hope that helps and good luck!