Pao Fan: A Zero-Waste, Fast Meal

Pao fan is a trick we’ve relied on many times over the years to get a fast meal on the table in minutes. 

You just gather up a few salty side dishes and some cold leftovers out of the fridge, and you’re ready to enjoy an effortless breakfast, lunch, or dinner! Also, nothing goes to waste!

What is pao fan? 

Pao fan is a simple porridge of leftover rice and water. It’s a great way to reheat and stretch cooked, leftover rice. 

It’s popular with Shanghainese families in particular (our Cantonese grandparents had only heard of it from Shanghainese friends, before my dad roped my mom, a Shanghainese girl, into getting hitched). 

Pao fan is not to be confused with congee, which is raw rice simmered in stock. (Check out our 20-minute Congee recipe!) 

In Chaozhou, there is a Teowchew porridge recipe that cooks rice from a raw state until the individual grains are just cooked. 

In texture, it’s closer to pao fan than Cantonese-style congee, but it’s ultimately different from both in that it usually entails a richer broth and more add-ins like seafood to make a flavorful soup. 

A Zero Waste Recipe 

Pao fan is a great way to use up old leftovers, so that nothing goes to waste—not the hard, cold rice you forgot in the back of the fridge, or the motley assortment of leftovers you have at the end of the week. 

Cold leftover rice in rice cooker spotCold leftover rice in rice cooker spot
Bowl of pao fan with small bitesBowl of pao fan with small bites

Also, maybe you don’t have quite enough plain rice to feed 3 people. Well, if you make this pao fan, enough rice for 2 can stretch to feed 3!

Thick or thin?

Like congee, you can cook this porridge until it’s thick and viscous. Or you can cook it just until it’s heated through for a thinner, water-y texture. 

Sarah prefers it thick. My mom Judy prefers it somewhere in the middle. My dad Bill likes it very thin and watery. As for me, I’m not picky! Well at least, not with pao fan, hehe. 

If you like yours thin, don’t talk while you’re slurping your pao fan! Many coughing fits over the years have been thanks to eating pao fan too quickly. 

Wooden ladle of cooked pao fanWooden ladle of cooked pao fan

What to Eat With Pao Fan

The best dishes to eat with pao fan are ones that are super flavorful—sour, spicy, fermented, sweet. 

If you’re grabbing cold leftovers, as long as your porridge is piping hot, there’s really no need to reheat them. Perfect for nights when you’re feeling extra lazy. 

Here are some of our favorites. Some are store-bought, and some are dishes we’ve been cooking at home for years! 

Jarred Chili Bamboo Shoots, thewoksoflife.comJarred Chili Bamboo Shoots,
Vacuum sealed packages of zha cai, thewoksoflife.comVacuum sealed packages of zha cai,
red and white fermented tofu, thewoksoflife.comred and white fermented tofu,
Wok Fried Peanuts, thewoksoflife.comWok Fried Peanuts,
Dace fishDace fish
  • Cold leftovers like stir-fried vegetables or meat dishes 
Eggs with Soy Sauce and ScallionsEggs with Soy Sauce and Scallions
Shredded Pork with Five Spice Tofu, by thewoksoflife.comShredded Pork with Five Spice Tofu, by

How to Make Pao Fan 

In a medium pot, add your leftover cooked rice. Add enough water to submerge the rice, about 3-5 cups. If you like your pao fan thicker, you should add less water and cook it for longer. If you like your porridge thin, cook it for less time and add more water. 

Pot with rice and waterPot with rice and water

Cook the pao fan over medium-heat, and simmer for 5-10 minutes until it reaches your desired consistency. 

If you cook it for just 5 minutes, the rice will be heated through, but it will still be in individual grains. If you cook it longer (up to 10 minutes), the water will reduce and the starches in the rice will break down. You’ll be left with a thicker consistency closer to congee. 

Cooked pao fanCooked pao fan

Serve with your choice of salty dishes like chili bamboo shoots, fermented tofu, or dace fish. Also serve with any cold Chinese leftovers. 

Pao fan with peanuts, eggs, and leftover greensPao fan with peanuts, eggs, and leftover greens
Pao Fan MealPao Fan Meal


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