One of China’s lesser known festivals has just come and gone. Lajie 腊八节 or Laba Festival, which is held on the 8th day of the last month in the lunar calendar, and is part of the build-up towards Chunjie (Spring Festival/Chinese New Year). On Laba Festival it is traditional to eat Labazhou, which is Laba Porridge/8-treasure porridge. Families often get together to eat it in their homes or in restaurants, but the proper way to celebrate the festival is to go to a Buddhist temple where the monks make and serve vast quantities of the stuff free to anyone who comes.
Eating a bowl of Labazhou which has been made in the temple is thought to be particularly auspicious and will ensure a lucky year ahead, so as you can imagine, this ‘Virtue Blessing Porridge’ is much in demand, and huge crowds flock to the temples on the day of the festival. In the beautiful southern city of Hangzhou this year, the vast crowd jostling for the porridge at one particular temple became so unruly that the police had to be called in to restore order. To give you some idea of the numbers involved, all the temples in Hangzhou combined served over 400,000 bowls of Labazhou!
Making and serving the porridge on this particular day is a Buddhist custom dating back some 900 years to the Song dynasty. According to Buddhist legend, soon after Satyamuni (Siddhartha Gautama) gave up his worldly life and became a monk there was a time when he collapsed from near starvation. A young shepherdess saw this and she gave him her food which was a rice porridge containing nuts and berries from the surrounding area. The food revived him and he then went to sit under the Bodhi tree until on the 8th day of the last lunar month he gained enlightenment.
The monks start making the porridge on the 7th day of the last lunar month, it cooks slowly all night and then on the 8th day it is served to commemorate this important moment in the life of the Buddha. Over the centuries the festival has acquired some particularly Chinese characteristics, such as offering the porridge to the family ancestors, and in some rural areas daubing it on the fruit trees to ensure a bountiful crop.
The ‘recipe’ for Labazhou is more-or-less the same everywhere. As with most Chinese porridges (which are called congee in Cantonese) it has a starchy rice base. This seems to be the only part of the dish which is consistent all over the country. Other ingredients are chosen according to region, family tradition etc. Most versions favour the incorporation of other grains, like chinese barley, glutinous rice, black glutinous rice, wheatgerm, and millet. Dried pulses such as red beans , nuts such as peanuts, chestnuts, walnuts, pine nuts or almonds, as well as dried fruit and seeds such as red dates, jujubes, goji berries , lotus seeds , gingko nuts , dried longan, melon seeds, sesame seeds are all possible additions. Even dried apricots and raisins are sometimes included . An infinite number of combinations is possible.
The rule of thumb seems to be four types of grain (including rice) and a selection of eight other ingredients plus sugar or honey. The dried pulses, dates, chestnuts etc are boiled together in a big pot with lots of water, and when they are soft the rice, brown sugar (rock sugar or honey) are added together with the other chosen ingredients and all is simmered until soft and sticky.
Some Labazhou looks a deep brown colour, sometimes it is a pale beige colour – this usually depends on what sweetener is used and whether dried dates and red beans are included. The whole concoction can be topped up with a sprinkling of extra nuts and seeds if desired. Quantities seem varied, but are more or less in the proportion of 2oog of grains to 100g of each of the other ingredients.
This year Labajie fell on 19th January, and one of my husband’s young colleagues was very keen we should rush across Beijing to the Yonghegong to grab a couple of free bowls of the porridge. Traffic, polluted air and a prior engagement meant that we decided to give that a miss…but next year I’ll be head of the queue!