In Brazil, and the islands of Cabo Verde that lie between it and the African mainland, people who have a cold or are feeling unwell are given a soup known as Canja de Galinha (Chicken Congee). It is a simple dish made using rice, chicken, vegetables (like onions, potatoes, carrots), herbs (mint, parsley, celery), pepper and olive oil. This watery dish is said to be an excellent food for the old, the very young, and those with easily upset stomachs. Canja was brought to these lands by Portuguese colonists who also carried it all the way to Europe. But from where did they get it?

Most probably from their colony in peninsular India – Goa. Goa is inhabited by the Konkani people. They speak Konkani, an Indo-Aryan language (closely related to Marathi). The Marathis and the Konkanis are deeply influenced by Dravidian culture and languages. The imprint can be seen in their customs, beliefs, place names and food habits. It is not hard to fathom, given the location of their homelands, surrounded by Karnataka (a Dravidian speaking state) to the east and south. The land was ruled by Kannadiga dynasties for centuries. The story of how Congee made its way from this Portuguese enclave to distant Cabo Verde and Brazil is part of that narrative.

The Oxford Dictionary says that Congee refers to a Chinese broth made from rice and traces its etymology to Tamil ‘kanci’. In fact, rice broth – Kanji (in Malayalam and Tamil), Ganji (in Kannada, Tulu and Telugu), Paej (in Marathi and Konkani), Pakhala (in Odiya) and Kenda (in Sinhalese) is a popular food item. In South India, it is prepared using a wide variety of grains – rice, pearl millet and finger millet. These are cooked into a watery soup and seasoned with spices. Pickles, poppadoms or coconut chutney are served along with the soup. South Indian Muslim communities like Mappilas have a variant prepared during the holy month of Ramzan, Nombu Kanji, for those who are breaking their fast after sundown.

Other versions include Ragi Kanji (made from powdered Ragi or finger millet), Pal Kanji (where water is replaced by milk) and Pazham Kanji (made from leftover rice and curries). People in coastal Maharashtra and Goa eat their Paej with fish curry. To the east, in the states of Odisha, Bengal and Jharkhand, Pakhala is prepared using fermented rice water. It is seasoned using mustard seeds, cumin seeds and curry leaves. Served with fried vegetables, spinach and fish, Pakhala is said to protect people against heat strokes (very common during the region’s intense summers). In fact, the state of Odisha celebrates the dish annually with a Pakhala Dibas (i.e. Congee Day, on 20th March), marking the onset of summer. It is even offered as food to the chief deity of Odiya Hindus – Lord Jagaanath, in the great Puri Jagannath temple.

Congee, like rice, is an Asian essential. In the island nation of Sri Lanka, it is known as Kenda, prepared as a cure for upset stomachs. The Burmese do the same, serving Hsan Byok to invalids. Thai people make Chok for breakfast, serving it with eggs, pork, beef and pickles. Their Laotian and Vietnamese neighbours make Khao Piak (using chicken) and Chao Vit (with duck). Plain rice broth is offered to Buddhist monks. In China (Bai Zhou), Korea (Juk) and Japan (Kayu), the dish is served to the very young, the elderly and the sick. It is also associated with times of hardship, prepared for communities hit by famine.  Bai Zhou, Juk and Kayu are accompanied by a wide variety of items – bamboo shoots, tofu, soy sauce, kimchi, cuttlefish, octopus, salmon, pickled plums or miso.

The Filipinos developed Lugaw, eaten with onions, garlic, soy sauce, tofu, eggs, chicken, pork, beef, prawns, fish and fish sauce. On the islands of the Moluccas and Papua, rice is replaced by sago, yielding a dish known as Bubur Sagu or Papeda. It is eaten with a soup containing mackerel, tuna, mubara (a kind of fish), turmeric and lime. Further east, rice returns with chicken in the form of Bubur Ayam. Onions, chili paste, soy sauce, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, yam, water spinach, eggs, shrimp paste, tuna and anchovies (smoked or salted) are added to enhance the taste. The popularity of Congee in Asia explains its adoption and propagation by the Portuguese to their colonies across the Atlantic. Along with the Dravidian word used for the humble dish.

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows an oil painting of Balarama, Subhadra and Jagannath in the Puri Jagannath Temple of Odisha, in eastern India. It was digitized and made available to the public by Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom. The Puri Jagannath Temple is the holiest site of the Jagannath cult of Odisha. It is a very ancient cult, predating the arrival of Brahminical Hinduism. Some claim that Lord Jagannath was a deity of the Savara (Sabara, Saura or Sora) tribe who was appropriated by Brahmin priests. To this day, the Temple has a special class of non-Brahmin priests, the Daitapatis, who perform some of its most important rituals (the Nabakalebara or Renewal Ceremony). Others point out links between the cult and Odisha’s Buddhist heritage (most probably an outcome of Buddhism’s integration of the Sora deity’s cult sites). Everyday, Mahaprasad (an offering including 56 food items) is presented to the deity. And among these are Odiya versions of the Congee, the Dahi Pakhala and the Kanji Payas.

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