Light-hearted and wholesome
Whether you’re sick or craving comfort food, nothing hits the spot like this Goan porridge, promises Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal
The first monsoon showers of the year brought the feeling of renewal but it has quickly washed away to a feeling of dampness! Damp clothes, damp hair, even the air seems damp… not to mention redolent with the smell of mold flourishing in sun deprived corners.
So on one particularly rainy day I sought succor in one of my favourite comfort foods, Singapore style Porridge — savoury, steaming hot and guaranteed to make the world look right again! I spent a pleasurable hour, creating a pot full of flavourful stock. I placed 5 litres of water on the flame. Into the pot went one bruised bulb of lemongrass, a generous handful of pounded garlic, and grated ginger and minced chillies to spike things. Two cups of finely chopped vegetables (chopping vegetables can be very therapeutic, when one is rained in), cauliflower, carrot, beans and celery. Once the stock was bubbling away and the vegetables were tender, I added ½ a kg of rice, lowered the flame to simmer and assembled all the condiments I would serve it with. Hot chilli oil, spicy masalas, sour vinegar pickles, salty fish sauce and sweet chilli sauce so everyone could customize their bowlfuls to taste.
One hour later, my kitchen was aromatic with steam from the simmering pot and the rice had broken down to a viscous thick porridge. I was ladling it out at the table when a Goan guest, aunty Savia who was staying with us exclaimed, “Oh this is so much like pez!”
A few minutes of furious discussion and we determined that what I knew as porridge, aunty Savia knew as pez.
Unlike most people who get a taste of pez early in life, either as part of their daily diet or as a light meal when they were ill, I had never tasted it. Growing up in a Gujarati home, meant I often watched clothes being starched with rice water but never imagined it could be consumed. The Gujarati equivalent of pez is a gruel made of milk and wheat flour, sweetened with jaggery and spiced with dry ginger called raab.
I found my perfect bowl of pez masquerading as porridge on the distant island of Singapore a few years ago! Like pez, porridge is made by cooking rice slowly in many times its weight of liquid. Only in the case of porridge, the rice is cooked until it disintigrates and the liquid used might be a stock. (The spices and vegetables in the recipe above are my additions over the years).
To the rest of the world, porridge would mean oatmeal or other cereals cooked in milk, but in many parts of Asia, especially Singapore, porridge means a thicker version of what is known as pez, pej or kanji in the Konkan belt of India. But how did pez, the rice gruel, eaten in almost all Goan village homes at around eleven every morning turn up in Singapore?
Pez, it turns out, is older than Goan cuisine. It goes back to the very beginning of Indian culinary history, to the time when rice was first cooked in the subcontinent. In fact, this method of cooking grain predates the consumption of rice itself. I can only speculate that rice, once domesticated, gradually dispersed throughout the land mass of the India and further Asia.
The best thing about a bowlful of pez or kanji is that is allows one to customize it to taste. Pez is relegated to the medicinal section — taken as an antidote to tummy upsets — in the wheat eating North, but is a distinct dish in Uttaranchal, where it is eaten as mand jholi tempered with chillies and little garlic.
If that does not appeal, have it the Goan way, accompanied by a piece of mango pickle or roasted or fried dried fish, or with a chutney like the Mangaloreans, in whose homes, pez itself is made from boiled rice slow-cooked in a handi using a firewood ‘tandoor’ with lots of water until it is semi-mashed and served with galbyanchi chutney, made by coarsely grinding dried prawns, coconut, tamarind, finely chopped onions and a few red chillies. You could try having it Bengali style, as the lei or leyee (which means a paste) enriched with vegetables, turmeric and salt. Or try it the South Indian way as ganji, seasoned with salt and grated coconut and served hot with ghee and roasted papad.
Pej, kaneri, kanji, canji, canje, ganji are a few names by which pez is recognized as one travels around India, but Porridge is just one of the avatars pez exists as around the world. But it isn’t just the name that has changed along the way; the rice used to make it, the consistency it is cooked to and even the condiments that accompany it have evolved to adapt to locally available ingredients as it travelled around the world.
But however it is served, pez, Porridge or kanji it offers a hot bowl of comfort on a rainy day. It’s raining and I am off to make myself a bowl of pez.
But before I go, I am going to let you in on the secret behind this little discovery I made one day when the craving for pez got the better of me. Instant pez. If you don’t have the time or the patience to slow cook pez, place ½ a cup of rice poha, 1 maggi cube and 3-4 cups water in a pressure cooker, one whistle and you’re done, season and flavor to taste, dig in and bless me with every spoonful!
Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal is a gastronomy writer and food content consultant based in Mumbai.