Our Congee Calling
Written for the Acupuncture professional, this article was published in the July 2019 edition of the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine journal.
Our Congee Calling
By Karen M Taylor, L.Ac.
In today’s fraught political climate and frenzied pace of life, Americans are experiencing increased levels of worry and stress. The New York Times recently reported, “In the United States, about 55 percent of adults said they had experienced stress during ‘a lot of the day’ prior, compared with just 35 percent globally. Statistically, that put the country on par with Greece, which had led the rankings on stress since 2012.” 1
As physicians of Asian medicine, we are aware of the epidemic levels of digestive distress. Not only do we understand the strain this cultural climate has on our digestion, we can also provide treatment that reduces stress and protects the Spleen against the detrimental effects of so much worrying. In order to meet the demands of today, our remedy must be quick, easy, convenient, and accessible. But it must also be warm, whole, slow, soothing, healing, and agreeable to the average person. The solution is thousands of years old, and it’s been in our doctor bag all along.
Congee is that simple wisdom, that ancient elixir. A traditional Asian rice porridge that’s been around since the time of the Buddha, this medicinal meal benefits the stomach and intestines and is excellent for digestion. Slow cooked with lots of water, congee is an exceptionally hydrating. Often fed to babies, nursing mothers, or the ill and depleted. This simple porridge easily delivers needed nutrients to those with compromised digestion, while simultaneously healing and repairing the organs and associated channels.
In my practice, congee is the first line of defense for patients who suffer from loose stools or constipation of any type. It regulates and balances working equally well for dry and damp conditions. The benefits extend far beyond discomfort in the abdomen or epigastrium. Strengthening Qi and Yang, Nourishing Yin, Building Blood, and Calming Shen must be part of a daily routine.
From surveying my patients over the decades, I believe that breakfast is the meal most likely to damage Spleen Qi and Yang. Cold smoothies and granola bars on the run are not the nourishment our bodies need. I know congee offers a nourishing alternative because I’ve been eating it for breakfast for 27 years.
When my beloved mother passed away from complications of constipation, my calling became crystal clear: to bring the simple, healing power of congee to my home country and the west. Breakfast Cure was born.
My mission is two-fold: make it so easy that success is guaranteed, and create recipes that delight the western palate. Congee is convenient because it cooks overnight while you sleep. It offers a warm, well-cooked, easy to digest and absorb, homemade meal that is ready when you wake up. It dawned on me that a pre-packaged, easy-to-make, high quality congee would also be the key to compliance. I was right.
The prospect of making congee from scratch is often daunting and Congee packets can be training wheels that allow patients to see, taste, and feel what is possible. Some will be inspired to create their own personalized recipes, while others will be relieved to have pre-packaged options. Either way, the key to my Breakfast Cure method is to slow cook the congee overnight while you sleep, eliminating morning stress from deciding, prepping and cooking.
When this message came in recently I was thrilled — one more person blown away by the power of a simple old porridge.
“Hi Karen. I wanted to let you know that I made the Fig Cardamom Congee and ate it with the pistachios. It was divine! I don’t know how I’ve lived without it until now. and I’m not bloated or uncomfortable at all. I will make one of the other flavors on Sunday night.”
Then another update:
“I still feel great. It was exactly as you said it would be but it was still surprising to me. The congee is strangely comforting, and eating it makes me feel like I’m doing something profoundly good for my health. It’s nourishing in a deep, spiritual way. Breakfast Cure certainly lives up to its name.
Thank you! – Kristine”
Clearly my passion redoubles upon receiving a glowing report like this one, but I share it with you here to emphasize that it doesn’t have to take a long time. It is as powerful as it is simple. Love your Spleen, and make it a daily routine.
Congee works because it takes away all the challenges to a weak digestive system. There is nothing raw, cold, hard, dry, or difficult to digest after cooking with five or more times the volume of water at a low temperature for 8 to 14 hours. Breakfast Cure recipes emphasize organic, gluten-free, whole grains and a wide variety of ingredients, which is one of the keys to good nutrition.
Traditional recipes as well as Breakfast Cure flavors target specific patterns. For example, The Book of Jook’s basic congee recipe for a malnourished patient is made from white rice and water and served with butter and honey. Many people are surprised to learn that white rice is best in some cases because it is soothing and easy to digest. I love introducing people to a truly whole oat groat and the delicious congee it makes. I created Apple Cinnamon Breakfast Cure as a way to introduce people to congee using a flavors already popular for breakfast, yet made with a grain so complete it requires a much longer cook time. 2
One of my recipes, Masala Chai Spice, I call a quintessential modern congee because it is a soothing Qi and Yang tonic made primarily of white rice. I formulated Mega Omega, a more complex flavor, to Nourish Yin and Clear False Heat. I recently introduced my first true culinary medicinal flavor: Red Mushroom Medley. Drawing on the benefits of Wuyi mushrooms to nourish blood, it also contains Da Zao /jujubes and Longan fruit. Scallions, ginger, shiitake mushrooms and red rice round out this Chinese herbal offering.
The results are in — this savory, Chinese herbal flavor rivals my other top recipes in popularity. This is a significant milestone. Americans are finally ready to love our congee mornings.
It is my personal mission to hear “congee” uttered as a common household word, just as I have witnessed with “acupuncture” during my career. When I started acupuncture school, needles were still considered experimental by the FDA. When I began my practice in 1995, I spent most of my days educating patients about acupuncture. Most people had never heard of it, had no idea what it was, and didn’t know anyone who had tried it.
We are the ones who can bring congee and all its healing powers to the people around us. As acupuncturists, we understand why it’s actually good for everyone. We aren’t on the bandwagon of whichever food group is the “bad” food of the decade. Meat was bad for you in the 80’s, fat was unacceptable in the 90’s, and today grains are the demonized food. Chinese medicine provides us a vantage point that allows us to see beyond trendy fads and draw instead on our beautiful, time-tested traditions.
The pioneers among us who brought our medicine to the west, like Bob Flaws, shared so much wisdom with early acupuncturists here. The Book of Jook was first published the year I graduated from Southwest Acupuncture College. It was one of the early resources in English that opened the path for us to embrace this healing medicinal porridge. The book’s tagline even suggests congee as a “healthy alternative to the typical western breakfast.” 3
I imagine that, like me, many among us have tried and failed to get patients to make congee at home. Compliance is the key as well as the biggest challenge. I had the same issue when I first started my practice with a full, loose-herb pharmacy. Now we have the option of so many easy-to-take, high quality Chinese herbal formulas that compliance isn’t much of a barrier.
As acupuncturists we know that the concept of Spleen Yang and our theory of digestion is often difficult for our patients to fully understand. The immediate, tangible, soothing effect of eating congee first thing in the morning coupled with the deeper long term benefits allow patients to experience this abstract theory through personal experience. They feel good!
I sleep better knowing that I’m following the teachings of the ancient masters by turning first to tools of diet and lifestyle. Congee and Breakfast Cure have allowed me to share these tools with others in a way that will reduce stress, nourish and heal. I invite you to try it.
Karen Taylor is a licensed acupuncturist and Diplomat of Acupuncture in Eugene, Oregon and has been in private practice since 1995. Karen received her Diplomat of Chinese Herbology in 1994. Karen founded Breakfast Cure in 2017 to facilitate adopting congee as a morning ritual for everyone from toddlers to doctors of Chinese medicine. For additional information please visit breakfastcure.com
1. Chokshi, Niraj, The New York Times, Americans Are Among the Most Stressed People in the World, April 25, 2019
2. Flaws, Bob, The Book of Jook, Blue Poppy Press, 1995, p. 58
3. Flaws, Bob, The Book of Jook, Blue Poppy Press, 1995