Laba Congee

In China’s lunar calendar, the last month of the year is called the la yue, when in ancient times people would pray and sacrifice to gods and ancestors. Ba, eight, is a lucky number in China because it sounds like “fortune.” The Laba Festival, held on the eighth day of the last lunar month, signals the run-up to the Chinese New Year, and most Han Chinese celebrate the festival by eating laba congee.

Traditionally laba congee is made with eight ingredients; nowadays, however, more than a dozen are used, including glutinous rice, millet, red and green beans, lotus seeds, dried dates, chestnuts, peanuts, almonds and walnuts. It is a nutritious winter food. The classic encyclopedia of herbal medicine Bencao Gangmu (Compendium of Materia Medica) says that rice porridge “increases the life force, produces saliva, nourishes the spleen and stomach, and resolves sweating due to weak constitution or health.”

When the custom of eating laba congee was passed down to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the laba ceremony in Beijing’s Yonghegong Lamasery became the most celebrated event. In the temple there is an ancient bronze pot, two meters across and a meter and a half high, four tons in weight, designed especially for laba congee.

On the first day of the 12th month, the imperial court dispatched officials to deliver ingredients and firewood to the temple. At dawn of the seventh day of the month, they poured everything into the pot together with spring water from nearby mountains, and cooked the congee; while lamas prayed throughout the process. After 24 hours of cooking, the laba congee would be served, and could be smelled from miles around.

According to historical records, Yonghegong made six pots of the congee for the festival, each of which used 80 kg millet, 50 kg coarse cereals, 50 kg dried fruits and 5,000 kg firewood. The first pot was offered to the Buddha; the second went to the emperor and the imperial court; the third to imperial kinsmen and the abbot of the temple; the fourth to senior officials; the fifth to members of the lamasery, and the last pot to commoners.

To Cook:

1. Wash the rice, glutinous rice, millet, red beans, green beans and dried lotus seeds.

2. Wash the dried dates and soak them in warm water for 20 minutes.

3. Peel the chestnuts, peanuts, walnuts and soak in warm water till soft.

4. Pour the mixture of rice, glutinous rice, red beans, green beans and lotus seeds into a pot of water and boil on high flame.

5. Add dried dates, chestnuts, peanuts, and walnuts. Cook on a medium flame for 40 minutes, and stir the porridge evenly to avoid ingredients sticking to the bottom of the cooker.

6. Add millet and dried lily. Keep cooking on a medium flame for another 20 minutes and stir.

7. When the congee becomes sticky add brown sugar, stirring until the sugar melts.

8. Turn off the heat and serve.