Moi, comforting rice-based porridge to warm the soul
If the truth be known, a bowl of piping-hot plain white moi (congee in Hokkien) is unpretentious and is as bland as ever. Yet through the millennia, it has become a comfort food that has no equal. Moi has become the food of love, health and of the home for millions. At times, I marvel at how food this simple can be elevated to taste so deliciously divine.
Moi is rice grains cooked until broken and somewhat shapeless. You can adjust the consistency of the porridge by adding water. You can also cook it with a plethora of ingredients, transforming it into a savoury or sweet offering.
If you have not, you must sample a bowl of piping-hot plain white moi with savoury accompaniments such as pickled mustard greens, salted duck's egg and fried dace with salted black beans. To enhance the aroma and taste of the moi, drizzle it with some fragrant sesame seed oil, light soy sauce, a dusting of white pepper, thinly julienned fresh young ginger and chopped spring onions. Top it with some crispy cuts of eu char koay (Chinese-style deep fried breadsticks). Mix everything together for an enjoyable meal. This makes a heart-warming breakfast and is easy to prepare at home.
When cooking a batch, I use a more “starchy” rice such as jasmine rice (long-grain) and japonica rice (medium-grain) to obtain a smooth, silky texture. Avoid using basmati rice at all costs!
This is a dish I often cook at home. Using a hassle-free multi-functional smart cooker, silky smooth moi is cooked in 15 minutes. Sometimes I use bone broth to flavour the moi or fresh seafood like salmon, prawns, clams or crabs.
Moi is versatile and lends itself to endless creative recipes. You can include shredded chicken meat with century eggs, celery and seaweed with fresh fish flesh, minced pork with preserved radish, pork ribs with sweet potatoes and carrots, white fungus with chicken and Chinese wolfberries, char siew (Chinese barbecue pork) with spring onions, siew bak (crispy roast pork belly) with Chinese braised peanuts and dried oysters with wood ear mushrooms. Thinly julienned ginger and diced spring onions are two indispensable toppings. The combinations of ingredients are endless so comb the internet for winning recipes. Some recipes contain grains, beans, nuts, flowers, tea and even fruits such as apples and pears. Add in what tickles your taste buds and be adventurous. You might be rewarded with a scrumptious bowl of goodness.
In Mandarin, congee it is called 粥 – "zhōu", in Cantonese, "jūk" or "jook" and in Hokkien, "moi" or "muay". According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the history and etymology for congee are derived from the Tamil word "kañci"; this refers to "water from cooked rice" although it means porridge made from rice.
Today, moi is commonly known as a rice porridge but in ancient times, it was made with whatever grains that were harvested – millet, cornmeal, barley, etc.
The first known use of the word "congee" dates back to 1930; however, it has been enjoyed for thousands of years in ancient East and South Asian countries. Historical accounts show that congee was enjoyed across all walks of life, from emperors to common folks.
In Shiji (the Records of the Grand Historian), it is mentioned that zhōu was invented by the deified Yellow Emperor (Xuanyuan Huangdi) himself. He was believed to have been born around 2704 BC, beginning his rule as emperor in 2697 BC.
In the good old days, using relatively small amounts of rice, the poor could make big pots of moi so that their rice stock could last longer. However, I am sure moi was served in rich households as well back then. Strangely, even until today, some families still adhere to the taboo of eating moi for breakfast on the first day of festive Chinese New Year. They believe that as the less fortunate could only afford moi in the past, it would be considered an inappropriate food to be served as the first meal of the year. Ask around and see if any of your Chinese friends sit down to a bowl of moi on Chinese New Year. You might be surprised by their answers.
Moi is also an ideal food for babies, a good introduction to solid food. Mum would recommend feeding moi to eight-month old babies. Some mothers, however, would wait until the baby is at least a year old. Mum would add carrots to the moi and pass it through a sieve to obtain a smooth texture, palatable for the baby. She would also pound crispy fried ikan bilis (anchovies) into a fine powder to add it to the moi. She is strongly against baby food bought off the shelves and believes in healthy home cooked recipes. I followed this family recipe when my baby daughter had her first taste of moi. In a blink of an eye, she is now nineteen. She still enjoys moi, however with more elaborate ingredients.
In Penang, moi is served at some Chinese Taoist funerals after the burial or cremation ceremony. Since it is customary to offer a whole roasted pig at the ceremony of a last send-off, it is only logical to cut it up and serve it when all is done. Plain white moi is often served with siew bak and other basic condiments. This is rather ironic as moi is the first thing a baby would "eat" and the last thing all will feast on at the funeral.
Moi is said to improve the complexion, relieve internal "heat", nourish and warm the body. Moi’s reputation for healing is also recorded in the history of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Having said that, it is the go-to comfort food when I feel under the weather.
Do you know that Laba congee, a kind of multi-grain congee with dried fruits and nuts, is distributed at temples in China on the Laba Festival celebrated on the eighth day of the 12th month in the Chinese lunar calendar? This festival is on the same day as the enlightenment day of Buddha – Bodhi Day. It is said that the milk porridge given to Buddha, prior to his enlightenment, gave him the strength to carry on. (In Penang, Vesak Day celebrates the birth of Buddha, the day he attained enlightenment and the day he passed away in his eightieth year.)
All the photographs above are home-cooked moi enjoyed by my family. Many versions of moi are available in Penang for breakfast, lunch and dinner, at practically any time of day. Most economy rice stalls would also have plain white moi as an option to steamed white rice.
Many food courts in Penang would have a stall or two selling moi. Oyster porridge, duck porridge, bak moi (pork porridge), hu moi (fish porridge) and claypot frog porridge all taste very different. Here are three moi places to consider:
Hon Kei Food Corner at 45, Kampong Malabar in George Town offers a wide range of soup options including bak moi (pork porridge). I often opt for the bitter gourd soup with a bowl of yam rice.
A bak moi stall at Perak Lane is popular among locals. The hearty moi serving includes slices of liver, kidney, intestines and minced meat. The stall is located at the corner of Perak Lane and Jalan Jelutong. If pork porridge is not your thing, ask them to add a crab and some prawns or fresh fish instead.
A bestseller at Chok Kee (188, Lebuh Kimberley) is the moi that includes roasted pork intestine and century egg.
Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
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20 May 2022