Publication Date

March 18, 2024

Perspectives Section

Perspectives Daily


  • Asia


Cultural, Food & Foodways

Imagine this: a masterpiece crafted by Chinese American chefs, blending traditional Chinese culinary ingredients like cornmeal, carrots, garlic, and water, beautifully adorned with crunchy bacon, vibrant scallions, and creamy cheddar cheese. The enticing aroma of sizzling bacon reaches far and wide, captivating everyone from Chinese gourmets to local chefs in the United States. Scallions add an appealing green color and delicate flavor to the food. Cheddar cheese, a favorite among Chinese Americans, finishes the dish. This is a bowl of congee, in which Chinese American cooks ingeniously have blended tradition with modern creativity throughout history. Their twists pay homage to their heritage while embracing new influences and expanding taste boundaries. It is a true fusion of flavors, reflecting the evolving Chinese American culinary experience.

A bowl of corn congee.

A simple set of ingredients provides an introduction to a deep history of cultural fusion.Viv Lynch/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The introduction of American corn to China in the 18th century via Spanish trade routes initiated sweeping changes across both Chinese agriculture and food culture. As hardy, high-yield corn crops rapidly spread through China’s interior, large influxes of farmers settled traditionally uncultivated areas like Sichuan, the Yangtze basin, and the Han River region for the first time. While these emerging agricultural frontiers had been ancestral homelands of the Indigenous Hmong, large-scale displacement by immigrant farmers caused military confrontation and eventual Hmong retreat to more remote mountain refuges. At the same time, acceptance of corn transformed cuisines across socioeconomic levels through fusion with incoming American crops like tomatoes, potatoes, and chili peppers. Daily staples evolved through corn-based noodles, buns, and congee, making the nutritious new crop accessible nationwide. So, while expanding corn propagation pushed out marginalized communities, it also became a medium of cross-cultural exchange as American foods stimulated new directions in Chinese cuisine, shaping food cultures in rapidly growing immigrant towns. The hardy, forgiving crop thus nourished both agricultural settlement and culinary fusion.

After introducing corn to imperial China, it became an essential part of traditional Chinese congee. During the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912), corn congee held a special cultural place, especially in the grandeur of the Forbidden City in Beijing. These eras were marked by immense wealth and cultural flourishing, with corn congee becoming a symbol of cherished memories and human bonds, embodying the Chinese concept of 补 (bǔ), encompassing sustenance, healing, and total well-being. Beyond physical sustenance, corn congee embodied the role of food as emotional and spiritual consolation. Its warmth provided comfort; its nutrition lent strength and energy. On cold days or when recovering from illness, a bowl of corn congee felt like an embrace from a loved one. This cultural symbolism resonated with core tenets of Confucian philosophy that shaped society: compassion, filial duty, ritual, and the pursuit of harmony. Today, centuries later, corn congee remains a quintessential Chinese dish, tying modern meals back to ancient wisdom on nourishment, balance, and the profound human need for physical and emotional sustenance. Its simplicity points to essential truths—that food and love share common ingredients across the ages.

As the centuries unfolded, the journey of American corn to China was mirrored by the journey of Chinese cooks to America. Chinese immigrants introduced various flavors to American cuisine during the 19th and 20th centuries, enriching the culinary landscape with their cultural heritage. Amid ever-shifting demographics and economic challenges, Chinese American immigrants cultivated a culinary legacy that beautifully interwove elements of their current lives with memories of their homeland. Corn congee holds profound cultural significance for the Chinese American diaspora. This humble dish evoked a deep emotional connection to their homeland through its aromatic allure, exquisite taste, and elegant presentation. However, the essence of corn congee transcends the mere amalgamation of water and cornmeal; it carries cherished memories, time-honored traditions, and a sense of belonging passed down through generations. The profound bond between food and emotion is poetically reflected in the meticulous process of preparing and savoring corn congee.

After introducing corn to imperial China, it became an essential part of traditional Chinese congee.

This connection takes on an even deeper dimension when we explore the resonating similarities between Taoism and the art of cooking and eating. These two seemingly distinct realms share a common spiritual and moral core, profoundly impacting the immigrant experience. One can discern echoes of Taoism’s philosophy in the heartwarming simplicity of a bowl of corn congee, with concepts like the harmonic dance of yin and yang, wu-hsing (the five elements, which are wood, fire, earth, metal, and water), and liang-je (balance).

Cooking a congee recipe is a practice deeply aligned with Taoist philosophy, emphasizing the pursuit of balance and harmony. Much like the Taoist quest for equilibrium, the process involves meticulous control of the cooking fire’s temperature, ensuring the ideal consistency and texture of the cornmeal. We can understand this endeavor as mirroring the Taoist principle of finding harmony amidst opposing forces, akin to the philosophy of yin and yang. Within a bowl of corn congee, we discover a remarkable balance. At its core, it is a delicate balance of water and cornmeal—a reflection of compassion and humility. It is a testament to the artistry and expertise of Chinese culinary traditions, where a symphony of flavors and textures comes together in perfect harmony. Here, a hearty meal serves as a meeting ground where peace and simplicity converge and compassion intertwines. It becomes a sacred space where individual stories blend harmoniously with introspective musings, nourishing the body and spirit. Through preparing and enjoying corn congee, Chinese American immigrants find a bridge that connects them to their cultural roots and offers solace amid the challenges and changes they encountered in their adopted homeland.

Congee’s versatility in the kitchen provides a blank canvas onto which an individual can cook their unique history by modifying the particular ingredients to suit different tastes and preferences. Crisp carrots and celery, for example, might provide a splash of color and a nice crunch to each mouthful. Or thinly sliced garlic may give enticing depth to the meal, while a dab of soy sauce energizes the tongue.

A hearty meal serves as a meeting ground where peace and simplicity converge and compassion intertwines.

In this bowl of congee, in which Chinese American home cooks have deftly merged tradition with creativity, we find an embodiment of diasporic modernity, the dynamic interaction between traditional Chinese cuisine and contemporary experiences in America. It demonstrates how Chinese diasporans have adapted their culinary traditions to the modern American setting, resulting in a harmonious blend of flavors and methods. This perfect combination of gastronomic influences not only tantalizes the taste buds but also indicates that admiration for one another’s culinary traditions can bridge geographical borders, cross seas, and enchant hearts worldwide. The congee becomes a metaphor for more than simply a meal; it represents the ability of food to bring people together, celebrate variety, and accept the ever-changing world of global cuisine. In the heartwarming simplicity of a bowl of corn congee, we witness the journey and blending process of American corn in China and Chinese cooks in America, creating a culinary harmony that transcends time and place.

This refined congee rendition captures the culinary voyage’s essence, demonstrating its versatility and ingenuity. Congee morphs into a beautiful symphony of tastes when combined with crispy bacon, scallions, cheddar cheese, carrots, celery, garlic, and soy sauce, perfectly harmonizing the rich culinary traditions of China and America.



Modified Chinese American Corn Congee1 cup cornmeal4 slices bacon, chopped4 green onions, thinly sliced1 cup cheddar cheese, shreddedsalt and pepper carrots, celery, garlic, and soy sauce

  1. Put the cornmeal in a large pot with water and bring to a low boil.
  2. Cover and cook over low heat for 20 minutes, stirring constantly, until cornmeal is cooked and thickened.
  3. Fry bacon separately and place on a plate when cooked.
  4. In a saucepan, sauté carrots, celery, and garlic for five minutes.
  5. Add browned bacon, sautéed vegetables, and garlic to the pot and mix well.
  6. Add the cheddar cheese to the congee.
  7. Season with salt, pepper, and soy sauce. Stir well.
  8. Add sliced green onions.
  9. Adjust seasoning to taste.
  10. Garnish with your choice of bacon, scallions, cheddar cheese, carrots, celery, garlic, and soy sauce to make a delicious Chinese American corn congee!

Ke Zhao is a PhD student at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her research interests include Sino-US relations and global food history.

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