Gruel is a type of porridge that is made with a higher water-to-grain ratio than other types. The result is a rather soupy end product, though not all people are averse to it. In some cultures, it is considered a treat or delicacy. In Korea, jat-juk is a rice gruel with pine nuts that is actually a high protein treat.
This doesn’t necessarily end the bad reputation of gruel, particularly in Western culture. Though Charles Dickens may have exaggerated, it is true that gruel was often served in orphanages to spread out small amounts of grain to feed large amounts of people. In this sense, it was not particularly nutritious, and Dickens does not exaggerate the hunger of children who mainly lived on such diets. The miserly Scrooge also takes gruel as an evening meal, implying he ate it to save money.
Medieval recipes for gruel, often called gruya, don’t deserve a bad rap. Instead of being made of grain and water, gruya or gruyau uses rich almond milk, in a four-to-one ratio with a number of different grains. Oats are popular but some interesting tastes can be developed with rye or millet instead. This is a fairly high protein dish because of the almond milk. Dairy or soy milk can also be substituted in this recipe to produce a delicious thin soup or gruel.
Gruel was used frequently to feed people with ailments in previous centuries. Thin grain-based soups were considered fairly digestible and better for the stomachs of recovering invalids. Hippocrates made gruel a mainstay part of diets for people with gouty conditions, and some healthcare experts still recommend thin, low fat soups or grains to those with gout.
Modern gruel is more likely to be called soup, and a number of recipes really spice up it up. The Mayans made a porridge with chilies or chili powder, which added extra spice to what would otherwise have been considered a plain dish. Potato gruel is common in the southern US and may have additions of sausage, ham or bacon.
A nice hot gruel with additions of vegetables or meat shouldn’t be overlooked, and may make for a great comfort food. It’s quite common to see soups that adopt this premise. Beef and barley soup, for example, is a take on gruel that adds whole barley grains to soup. Soups like corn chowder also bear some similarity to this thinned porridge. Even though gruel may have gotten a bad reputation from writers like Dickens, with the proper additions it can make for delicious and nutritious food.