ANDREA BURGENER: An ode to porridge
This starchy gruel has not gotten the respect it deserves. If you approach it in the right way, it can be glorious
Researchers think that our species had a liking for boiled hot mush from as far back as 12,000 years ago.
It may even be that slop in a bowl is responsible for the initial population explosion of humankind: before the days of porridge or blenders, most food was pretty chewy — whether meat, leafy veg or tubers — and babies had to get sustenance from breast milk for some years. Breastfeeding acts as a contraceptive for many women, so once babies were weaned earlier, well, it was downhill from there. That’s just one theory, of course.
Porridge has history, but somehow it’s never managed to have pedigree. Admittedly, it had a brief moment of glamour when Heston Blumenthal threw some snails into oats, and it got some good PR in Goldilocks. But, by and large, it’s not given the respect it deserves. In fact, for many people, porridge is penance. That, I have to tell you, is not the fault of the porridge, but of the criminally selfish and soulless individuals who make and serve it without care. Nobody can be asked to get through a tepid, lumpy bowl of mushy starch, unseasoned and possibly boasting a skin on top.
But if you approach it from a different perspective — that of an almost sinful treat (and in truth, it is nutritionally speaking something of a dessert) — and cook, embellish and serve it with the same attention you would bestow on a steamed pudding or great soup, it will be glorious. Even noble.
We have a great porridge culture in this country. Bowlfuls of sorghum, wheat, oats, maize and more, are eaten everywhere, every day. They’re so varied that it seems rather insensitive to lump them under one heading, but a full taxonomy would require a book. With my enormous love for the stuff, I feel it my duty to make sure that every bowl fulfils its true potential.
So, while there are wild differences between types, certain rules apply to almost all porridges:
- They must be eaten piping — even scaldingly — hot;
- They absolutely must have a generous element of fat mixed into them, both within the pot and upon serving. This could be butter, peanut butter, coconut cream or thick jersey cream;
- They should be salted; every one of them; and
- Nobody should ever be forced to finish a bowl, once full. It’s this sort of behaviour that leads to porridge hatred, and worse still, eating disorders.
If you don’t like sweet, then go for the Asian dish congee — originally from the Tamil Kanji, but made popular by Chinese cuisine. It’s basically sticky rice cooked to pieces, well-seasoned and peppered with anything from thousand-year egg and shiitake to spring onion and pork. It’s an ancient and exciting dish which makes Blumenthal’s foray look pretty tame. Shun De at 32 Derrick street in Cyrildene’s China Town serves a good one, but it’s also a cinch to make at home. The thousand-year eggs are by no means compulsory.
If you want to try your hand at making Congee at home, visit Congee
If you’d rather make Heston Blumenthal’s snail gruel, visit: Heston Blumenthal’s snail gruel