A Bowl of Congee

I grew up eating congee in Singapore. It’s a savory rice porridge that, in my humble opinion, is best served with sliced ginger and steamed fish, garnished with spring onions, and with some youtiao on the side. White pepper and soy sauce to taste. I’m no doctor, nor do I have any qualifications or knowledge when it comes to nutrition, but I firmly believe that congee has healing properties; there’s no ailment that a good bowl of congee (with extra ginger) can’t cure.

Anyway, congee isn’t one of those dishes you’re gonna find at many Chinese restaurants, owing to it being more in the home cooking sort of meal rather than restaurant fare. I did find some places that serve it in New York, though it’s often referred to here as juk due to the Cantonese influence in this particular slice of the Chinese diaspora. In any case, food is food, and good food is good, no matter the name.

So along comes Raya and The Last Dragon, a Disney movie in a fantasy world that draws heavily on Southeast Asia. Already, I’m on board, because a lot of the aesthetic of the movie draws on places I’m familiar with. Even the dish that Chief Benja prepares in the prologue is basically tom yum soup, which itself is a cousin to laksa, a beloved Singaporean dish of mine. There are little details that, though non-specific, ring true.

And then Raya and Sisu meet Boun aboard his restaurant-boat. A restaurant-boat that serves congee. And man, the congee looks delicious. It’s hard to overstate how cool it was seeing congee of all things in a Disney animated movie. It’s not exactly a marquee dish, it’s not one that’s gonna show up in a travel magazine; it’s almost a culinary shibboleth: if you know, then you know. Its presence in the movie suggests storytellers that chose to go beyond the cultural surface for touchstones (and, given that the credited writers were the Malaysian Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen of Vietgone, it’s more likely it was drawn on personal experience).

Better yet, congee fits the narrative perfectly.

Understand that food is culturally important in the places that Raya draws on. Sharing a meal is an indication of trust and friendship, an act of welcoming. It’s why Chief Benja makes a big deal in the prologue about inviting the other Chiefs into Heart for a bowl of not-tom yum soup. For Raya and Sisu to share a proper meal, especially one with this kid named Boun they just met, it’s a step forward in their relationship. That the meal is congee hones in on it all. It’s a simple dish (exactly the sort you’d expect to be served in a restaurant run by a kid), and it’s also a very familiar one. Of course, Raya’s not yet too prone to trusting people, so she settles for her jackfruit jerky instead, rejecting what’s very much a home-cooked meal.

Food is important, and the significance of Raya rejecting a meal makes sense even without the cultural baggage someone like me brings to the movie. But the cultural background that informs the storytelling and my own worldview work together to bring more meaning to it. Raya finally eating a meal with her newfound friends is a big deal.

I really like Raya and The Last Dragon. It’s a great story, but it’s also one that draws on a lot of things I’m familiar with from my childhood. Getting to see it reproduced as it was in a film like this is incredibly special. There’s congee in it, there’s a character with my name, the cast is full of folk who look like me. More of this specificity, please.

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