Laba rice porridge is usually made of glutinous rice, red beans, millet, Chinese sorghum, peas and dried lotus seeds. Other ingredients like dates, chestnuts, walnuts and almonds can be mixed in too. Then they are all cooked with sugar to make porridge.
The dish is most commonly eaten on Laba (also known as the Congee Festival) – a Buddhist celebration on the eighth day of the last month of the year in the Lunar Calendar. This year’s Laba fell on January 11, commemorating the day that Buddha found enlightenment after six years sitting under a tree in what is now Bihar, eastern India.
Like most Chinese dishes, Laba rice porridge has picked up a host of stories on its origin. Some say Buddhist monks would collect nuts and grains from the better-off in order to make porridge for the poor (explaining the hotchpotch of ingredients).
Others believe that Laba porridge dates back to Qin Shihuang, the first emperor. Workers building the Great Wall were said to be starving one cold winter day, so they gathered whatever cereals they had left and made a gruel which became the Laba porridge of today (not that it did them much good in the long term; most of them starved to death anyway).
What’s the best place to eat Laba?
Fangshan Restaurant, No.1, Wenjin Jie, inside Beihai Park, Beijing (Tel: +8610 6406-2334).
For a more authentic experience, you can visit Buddhist temples around the country. Many give out bowls of free porridge on the day of the festival.
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