When someone is sick in the US, typically the go-to cure is hot chicken soup. The Mayo Clinic has suggested this may be a popular cold and flu “remedy” due to the mucous-thinning effects – onions and garlic contain a substance that breaks down mucous and can relieve congestion. In Japan, there is a soup-like concoction that is commonly made and fed to those who are sick with a cold or the flu.
Okayu is also known as “congee” and “rice gruel.” It basically consists of overcooked, watery rice with little flavor other than overcooked, watery rice. The late Dr. Hirotomo Ochi suggested this may be common for the sick because your taste buds are a bit off when all congested so it’s easy to tolerate. But okayu is not just for the sick. It is sometimes eaten for breakfast, by the elderly or at Buddhist temples, and it’s actually not far from the Italian dish risotto depending on how you make it.
There is a trick to enjoying okayu, however, just like any cuisine. When sick, the Japanese will sometimes just eat okayu with a little sliced green onion. Some like to add a Japanese pickled plum (umeboshi) but umeboshi tend to be an acquired taste for many Westerners. You can also find okayu served with a little leftover chicken or fish and some seaweed. But why not get more creative?
If eating okayu for breakfast or if you prefer sweeter dishes, you could top the rice gruel with some dried fruit, granola, chopped nuts and a sprinkle of brown sugar with some cinnamon, or any combination to create an interesting cold-weather comfort food. When fresh fruit is in season you can top the okayu with some crushed fresh berries or chopped apple and walnuts. For something a bit more savory, use chicken or vegetable broth instead of the extra water when cooking then top with steamed vegetables and leftover chicken, if desired.
Rice gruel is common in most Asian cuisines, but the Japanese okayu is usually considered thicker in comparison. Cooked rice is overcooked with added water, or dry rice is cooked with extra water, commonly in a 1:5 or 1:6 ratio rice:water – sometimes a little more water, up to 1:7.
When cooking okayu, you don’t want to stir it too much because you will make the rice too mushy. At the same time, you want to stir a little so it doesn’t stick to the pan. Alternatively, many modern electric rice cookers have a congee or okayu setting which does all the work for you.