Why I'm Making Congee—a Culinary Hug in a Bowl—with My Dad on Father's Day

Can't see Dad on Father's Day? Cook along with him on video.

A bowl of congee with chicken, shrimp, lime and garnishes
Photo: Breana Killeen

Pictured recipe: Shrimp & Chicken Congee

When I tried to think of a Father’s Day gift for my dad, I couldn’t imagine sending him a gadget, corny mug or socks—though he’d love all three. Repeatedly, my dad says he has everything he needs and everything he wants. He gets to see the sunset over the water, ride his bike 10 miles and do yoga every day. But the one thing he says he misses is the ability to share a meal with his only child.

A quick Google maps search shows my dad and I are exactly 2,959 miles away from each other. That means we’re a 45-hour drive from enjoying dinner together.

There’s nothing my dad enjoys more than a Chinese meal with family. Whether it’s the long, drawn-out 10-course Cantonese banquet with 10 equally loud family members jerking around a Lazy Susan to get the last bites of roast pork or simple egg noodles shared just the two of us at kitchen island bar, my dad is happiest when he’s sharing food. Some of my fondest childhood memories stem from being in the kitchen with him and my mom making rows and rows of dumplings, frying up leftover rice and steaming whole fish. Cooking with my parents is one reason I’m a cook now.

But this year has brought forth barriers that none of us could foresee, and my dad is grounded in San Diego while I am in Vermont.

So this Father's Day, instead of sending him a gift, I wrote him a recipe for one of his favorite dishes, jok, also known as congee. Every family has their own recipe, but I’ve always thought my dad’s was boring. Ha! One cup of rice, tons of water with only one sliver of ginger and salt? So bland and flavorless. (Cue the childish eyeroll.) How could he eat it every day for breakfast? Hasn’t he tried scrambled eggs with herbs and avocado toast? Doesn’t he know that I’ve been cooking professionally for 15 years and could help him make it taste better?

Breana Lai Killeen and her father at the Kirin beer factory in Japan
The author shares a beer with her father at the Kirin beer factory in Yokohama, Japan.

Well, this year he can have his congee, while I have mine and we can share it over Zoom. And maybe, just maybe, he’ll try making my version so we can share it together.

Congee is a traditional Chinese breakfast porridge made from rice simmered in water. Essentially, it’s a way to stretch a little bit of rice into a meal for several people. For many Chinese people and members of other Asian cultures, congee has become a comfort food. My dad, who grew up in 500 square feet with 8 people, ate it every day for breakfast before he left Hong Kong at age 17 to move in with a cousin in Canada.

But these days, even as I’m testing comforting holiday recipes in my home test kitchen, I find I’m reaching for my own comfort foods. Ramen, another favorite of my dad’s, makes a biweekly appearance. (Although many people in the United States associate ramen only with Japanese cuisine, ramen actually has roots in China—but that’s a story for another time.) He keeps his simple, while mine is piled high with toppings.

So, reach out to your dad and see if he wants to enjoy a meal with you. Maybe it’s a shared love for Cool Ranch Doritos, or maybe it’s a three-course steak dinner. I’ll be simmering rice with charred ginger, scallions, chicken and shrimp, then topping my porridge with chili crisp and lime juice. My dad will tell me it’s too fancy for jok, and I’ll tell him it tastes like a hug in a bowl.

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