I spent my formative years in Hong Kong, where congee is both served simply, made with mostly water and leftover rice, to heal you when you’re ill, or served elaborately, to spoil you with a myriad of fixings and toppings at luxurious dim sum spreads. It can be a meal of poverty and one of opulence. To me, it is comfort food in all instances, to cure all ailments from hangovers to homesickness.
While the congee I make at home is one thing – simmered for half the day and topped with an imprudent amount of fresh ginger – going out for congee is one of my favourite experiences. Now that I’ve lived in Philadelphia, a city with a significant Vietnamese population, for nearly a decade, I often crave congee that is notably different from the Cantonese porridges of my youth, finishes with squeezes of bright lime and piled high with crunchy bean sprouts and fresh herbs. Here are some of my top picks for congee in the city.
My favorites at Ting Wong are their fluffy fish congee, topped with peanuts, as well as their roast duck congee, but there are many varieties available. The base congee itself is the simplest and most straightforward in Philly – not too many fixings, but blandly comforting.
Their congee is not always on the menu – you need to ask for it, and you should. I also recommend bringing a friend to dive into an enormous, seemingly endless bowl of chao dui bo, or oxtail congee. This congee is very thin and comes with fixings of oxtail, beansprouts, cubes of pig blood, fresh ginger, onion, fried shallots and slices of lime, which make it into a spectacular feast.
TBD melds Viet-style congee with American brunch, so you can get savory congee topped with chicken skins or bacon bits and perfectly cooked eggs. I personally love eating all the toppings submerged in congee, then ordering one of TBD’s excellent banh mis and sopping up the remainder of the congee with them.
The chicken congee at David’s reminds me most of the congee from Hong Kong’s cha chaan tengs. Accompanied by my Greek friend Leah, we enjoy it with the crispiest youtiao I’ve had in Philly and it reminds her of avgolemono soup but without the lemon. “It makes me feel cozy and taken care of,” she exclaims, as we empty a bowl. David’s congee is one of the most flavorful and it is dotted with small pieces of chicken and slices of green onion. The servers folding dumplings at a back table add to the ambiance.
M Kee’s flavorful, very Cantonese congee is on the thinner side of consistencies. People rave about the thousand-year-egg congee here. I love the congee that is topped with slices of roast duck, combining two of my favorite types of food in one bowl: Cantonese barbecue and congee.
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