This is a post of firsts. It is my first non-western recipe and painting, it is the first painting by an anonymous artist, the first work to not feature a still life and because of this, the first one to not have a recreation. Beyond all of the firsts, it is an opportunity for me to learn about a section of art history with which I am not overly familiar. Chicken congee is a dish that my partner fondly remembers from his childhood so I was more than happy to make it for him. It is a warm and filling dish that is perfect for the current frosty weather that has recently enveloped Sydney.

Anonymous, Mother Hen and Chicks, Sung Dynasty
Ink & colour on paper, 60.8 x 32.8 cm, current collection unknown

Painted in the Sung Dynasty (960-1279), Mother Hen and Chicks is from “The Golden Era” of Chinese painting. Animals, flowers, and birds were common subjects of this era along with ethereal landscapes. Artists sought to accurately depict their subjects as well as capture their internal substance. It was thought that brushstrokes revealed the spirit of the artist rather than skill and often paintings were made with minimal colour. It was through this relatively simple style that aesthetic refinement and the sophistication of representation were achieved. Distincitve of Chinese art, Mother Hen and Chicks includes an inscription of poetry as well as several decorative seals. The use of the red seal is said to be “adding the eye of the dragon” to the painting (1).

Congee is a rice porridge that is eaten in many Asian countries, not exclusively in China. In China, congee is made by boiling rice until it breaks down into viscus porridge. It can be topped with various things from salted duck eggs to bamboo shoots and soy sauce. The Chinese eat it as a breakfast food and I first had it as a substitute for my mother’s chicken noodle soup when I was sick while staying with my partner’s family. Historically congee was had during times of famine and when there was an abundance of patrons visiting a temple. Congee is also served to infants but no toppings or salt is added and the rice is cooked even longer (2).

{Chinese Chicken Congee}

adapted from Gourmet
serves 4

1 lb chicken, cut into pieces
10 cups water
1 cup Concentrated chicken stock (recipe here)
3 tablespoons Chinese rice wine or medium-dry sherry
1 knob fresh ginger, sliced
1 tsp sesame oil
3 green onions, halved crosswise and smashed with flat side of a heavy knife
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup long-grain rice

Bring chicken and water to a boil in a heavy pot, skimming froth. Add wine, ginger, scallions, sesame oil and salt and cook at a bare simmer, uncovered, 40 minutes, or until breast meat is just cooked through.
Pour stock through a large sieve into a large bowl and discard solids. You should have about 7 cups. Return stock to cleaned pot and add 10 ice cubes of condensed stock (assuming you made the stock from before and froze the remaining portion in ice cube trays) and rice. Bring to a boil and stir. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered until consistency of oatmeal, about 1 3/4 hours, stirring frequently during last 1/2 hour of cooking. (Congee will continue to thicken as it stands. thin with water if necessary.)

Meanwhile, cool chicken breast long enough to remove skin and bones and tear into shreds. Chill shreds, covered, and bring to room temperature before serving.

Season congee with salt. Serve topped with chicken and accompaniments.