The majority Han Chinese have long followed the tradition of eating laba rice porridge on the eighth day of the twelfth lunar month. The date usually falls in min-January and is a traditional Chinese festival.
Legend about the origin of this festivity abounds One maintains that over 3,000 years ago sacrificial rites were held in the twelfth lunar month when people offered up their prey to the gods of heaven and earth. The Chinese characters for the hunt and the twelfth month (lie and la) were interchangeable then, and ever since la has been used to refer to both. Since the festival was held on the eighth day of the last month, people later appended the number eighth (ba in Chinese), giving us the current laba.
Buddhism was well accepted in the areas inhabited Han Chinese, who believed that Sakyamuni, the first Buddha and founder of the religion, attained enlightenment on 12/8. Sutras were chanted in the temples and rice porridge with beans, nuts and dried fruit was prepared for the Buddha. With time the custom extended, especially in rural areas where peasants would pray for a plentiful harvest in this way.
There is, however, another touching story. When Sakyamuni was on his way into the high mountains in his quest for understanding and enlightenment, he grew tired and hungry. Exhausted from days of walking, he passed into unconsciousness by a river in India. A shepherdess found him there and fed him her lunch—porridge made with beans and rice. With such nourishment he was able to continue his journey. After six years of strict discipline, he finally realized his dream of full enlightenment on the eighth day of the twelfth lunar month. Ever since, monks have prepared rice porridge on the eve ad held a ceremony the following day, during which they chant the sutras and offer porridge to Buddha. Thus, the tradition of eating laba porridge was based in religion, though with time the food itself became a popular winter dish especially in cold northern China.
Laba porridge is made with local specialties such as ginkgo fruits, water chestnuts, chestnuts, lotus seeds and red beans in addition to the rice. Actually eight ingredients are used, cooked with sugar to make the porridge wonderfully sweet. Northerners prefer to use glutinous rice, red beans, dates, lotus sees, dried longan pulp, walnuts, pine nuts and other dried fruits in their porridge; southerners like a salty porridge prepared with rice, soybeans, peanuts, broad beans, taro, water chestnuts, walnuts, vegetables and diced meat. Some people like to add cinnamon and other condiments to inject flavor. Controlling the heat is of great importance in the outcome. At the start, the flame must be high, but the fire is then turned down to let the porridge simmer until it begins to emit avery delicious smell. The process is time-consuming but not complicated.
Laba porridge is not only easy to prepare, but also a nutritious winter food because it contains amino acids, protein and other vitamins people need. Cooked nuts and dried fruit are good for smoothing nerves, nourishing one’s heart and vitality, and strengthening the spleen. Perhaps that is why it is also called babao (Eight Treasure) porridge.
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