My mom is from Taiwan and my dad is from Hong Kong, but they were both born in Shanghai, and they met in Oregon, of all places. When I was a kid, my mom did all of the home cooking. She'd make this overcooked rice porridge with just a little bit of salt maybe, but nothing else. You'd then add everything else into it: scallions, ginger, preserved and pickled vegetables, salted mustard greens, dried fish, and dried pork floss, which we call "sung" and which has an almost carpet-like texture.
It's almost always kind of grey and murky, and it's at least three times more liquidy than Taiwanese congee.
In our house growing up, we'd Americanize it by adding things like scrambled eggs to it, which was really standard in our house. Scrambled eggs, dried pork, fish, or squid, and then some pickled vegetables and stuff. That's how I ate it for years and years. But most of my family and most of our family friends are all Cantonese. They all come from Hong Kong, and their congee uses stock. It's almost always kind of grey and murky, and it's at least three times more liquidy than Taiwanese congee. That's what our family friends would bring over.
I actually prefer the Hong-Kong-style version, which is also far more seasoned. You still add stuff to it, but not as much. It's mostly ready to go; there's already meat in there, or dried scallop, or a thousand-year-old preserved egg. That's Cantonese style. Dried scallop, sometimes salted pork, chicken with meat in there. It's still simple, but a little bit more flavorful. We never ate that on a regular basis, but I always preferred it. So as an adult, that's what I make myself.
I make it for staff meal a lot. And then I started thinking about introducing blue crab to the dish. Growing up, we ate crab every couple of weeks in the summer in Maryland. I've had it with crab, maybe with cheap canned crab, in a restaurant—usually, at a nice place, it's abalone, crab, or dried scallop.
And so I wanted to do this crab congee, and I wanted to add a little richness to it: make it thin, like Cantonese-style, and then add this really nice, flavorful, salty crab. But instead of making a stock with the crab, I thought butter would be the best vehicle for that crab flavor instead. You never see butter in congee, in any version or culture. At least any Asian culture. I make a roasted crab butter with garlic, and Old Bay, and pimenton, and then I drizzle that into the congee. It gives the congee a really nice richness—otherwise it's just rice.
Any time anyone asks me to make something Chinese, I do this. It's original, but it feels very traditional. It has those roots to Maryland, where I lived as a kid, and the memory of having crabs all the time, and always having congee—it's my interpretation of something that still feels very Chinese. Even with the butter and the crab, I know it's not conventional, but it tastes really Chinese to me.