T.S. Eliot was wrong when he said April was the cruelest month–in Beijing at least, it’s January, when blisteringly cold winds turn the city into a frigid, Antarctic wasteland. Lucky for us, it also happens to be the gruelest month (har har har)–that is, the time when China celebrates Labajie (腊八节), an ancient holiday dedicated to babao zhou, otherwise known as laba zhou (腊八粥).
Falling on the eighth day of the 12th month of the lunar calendar (腊 refers to the month and 八 to the day), Labajie dates back thousands of years to the Pre-Qin Dynasty (5700 BC-2100 BC) era. In ancient China, people spent that day praying to ancestors and supernatural beings for a good harvest and luck in the coming year. In the beginning, only emperors and nobles would make sacrifices to the spirit world, appealing to eight different natural gods. Later, this rite was passed to common people around China, who translated the eight gods into ingredients with 腊八饭 (làbā fàn, rice boiled with several kinds of nuts and beans) in southern China and 腊八粥 (làbā zhōu, porridge boiled with several 8 kinds of nuts and beans) in northern China.
Historical records have shown that by the Song Dynasty (960-1279), laba zhou was ubiquitous, enjoyed by everyone from feudal officials to common peasants. During the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911), the palace would bestow luxurious versions of the zhou on civil servants, military officers, and their attendants on Labajie, as well as distribute rice and fruits to temples for monks and nuns.
Though the earliest versions of laba zhou only had eight kinds of nuts and beans, over time people added more and more ingredients. These days, the recipes vary from region to region, with Beijing-style laba zhou being the most elaborate. This version includes roughly 20 different additions to the rice, including jujubes, lotus seeds, walnuts, chestnuts, almonds, pine nuts, longans (a sweet fruit similar to lychees), grapes, ginkgos, julienned green plum, roses, red beans, peanuts and more. Traditionally, on the evening before Labajie, people would rinse the raw rice, soak the nuts and beans, peel and pit the fruit, and then stew it all together from midnight until early morning.
Nowadays, many of these traditions have fallen by the wayside, as Chinese started eating laba zhou year-round. And though some still enjoy cooking their own zhou, if you don’t have eight hours to spare, there are plenty of chains, like 宏状元 or 嘉禾一品, to get your rice porridge fix.
In addition to being tasty and festive, laba zhou has also been proven to be packed with body-renewing nutrients. It usually includes three main kinds of ingredients: grains (common rice, glutinous rice, black rice, oats, buckwheat, and millet), beans (red, soy, black) and nuts (peanuts, pine nuts, walnuts, lotus seeds), each of which has their unique benefits according to Chinese herbal medicine.
Diabetics, for instance, can add more buckwheat and oats, which are rich in fiber and help reduce blood sugar. Seniors should eat more beans, which can prevent osteoporosis and improve digestion. For young and middle-aged people, nuts and grains are great for replenishing energy and strengthening the brain, heart and liver. Zhou is also ideal for pregnant women, as it’s both nutritious and easily digestible—crucial for those early, queasy months. But “eight treasure congee” is best of all for growing kids, who should eat zhou packed with as many of these nutritious ingredients as possible. …and, of course, for hungover adults.