I decided to choose this for the artifact exchange because it came out right about the same time as Chinese New Year, and I was thinking about traditions. For a non-religious ABC like myself, celebrations all center around the food. (Skip down if you just want the recipe!)
Eight Treasure Rice (ba bao fan) is my all time favorite Chinese dessert. Nothing matches it for sheer unctuous satisfaction at the end of a good meal.
If you know anything about Chinese dining habits, you'll know that dessert is just not commonplace. If something sweet is to be had at the end the meal, it will generally be fresh fruit or nothing. This isn’t to say that there aren’t sweets. There are plenty of pastries, jellies, candies, soups, etc. They just aren’t dessert. They are snacks, and have no relationship with dinner.
However, there are certain occasions that demand a sweet conclusion to the meal, particularly banquets and special occasion meals. One of the most common dishes in these cases is ba bao fan. It is a popular dish for Chinese New Year, and one which my sister-in-law makes every year. It was served at my brother’s wedding, and I’ve seen it at other banquets as well.
Ba bao fan is a molded steamed rice dish that has sweet 'treasures' imbedded in a pattern in its surface, and a hidden filling of red bean paste. It is served hot, and since it is made of mostly glutinous rice, it has a consistency something like a pudding, although a bit firmer and rather stickier. Sometimes referred to as 'rice pudding,' there’s nothing egg-y or milky about it. It is both sweet, and not too sweet. Sticky, yet not too chewy. Rich and warm, yet soothingly light in flavor. And it is dense, so very, very dense.
Consider, this deceptively small dish comes out after a meal where one has been eating everything BUT rice for at least two hours. Rice isn’t served at banquets because guests aren’t supposed to fill up on the inexpensive staple. Instead, you’ve supped on fish and ham and jellyfish and abalone and shrimp and scallops and fat pork and sausages and tendon and pigs' feet and maw and duck and mushrooms and fresh bamboo shoots and squid and…. Well, you get the picture. A meal heavy in rich food, where you’re stuffed to the gills. So where does rice come in? This sweet, sticky, dense, oh my GOD I can’t eat aNOther thing dish that signifies prosperity.
Not everyone likes ba bao fan. It’s too sticky for some, too thick and rich and they feel dyspeptic just looking at it. It isn’t very sweet, but because it is served hot and the filling is quite sweet, it seems more so. Some people just don’t like red bean paste. To all this I say, ''Great! More for me!''
If you can’t find these ingredients, you can use raisins or other dried fruits, candied peel, shelled nuts or watermelon seeds, etc. Although red bean paste is more common, and the red color is propitious, I’ve heard of sweetened lotus seed paste as an acceptable substitute. Use your judgement and imagination about substitution. The only principal ingredient not up for substitution is the rice. Most people don’t bother to have eight treasures unless it’s a very special occasion. As long as it’s attractive and tastes good!
If you use raisins or other dried fruit, you don’t need to soak them first. Red dates need to be soaked because they are extremely dry and can’t be eaten straight. They won’t cook properly without soaking.
I also sent my artifact exchange partner what may well be the complete and utter bastardization of this dessert. A single serving heat-in-the-can-or-microwave sample. I’ve never tried it. It seems to count the rice as a treasure since in the ingredients list there are only 7….
Some ‘treasures’ are considered particularly good luck because of the Chinese tendency to pun. The short list of homophones as gleaned from my parents:
Lotus seeds = many sons
red dates = luck soon (the color red is considered lucky, ‘dates’ is a homophone for 'early' or 'soon')
peanuts = many children (alternating boys and girls)
dried longans (there is a special name for a dried longan) = prosperity + togetherness
I’m not sure why it has eight treasures. 'Eight' has a good vibe from the Eight Immortals1, if nothing else. Certainly, my parents don’t know why there are eight, and there was a debate about whether the rice would count. They decided that it wouldn’t, even though glutinous rice is a special thing. One recipe I encountered didn’t count the filling or the rice as a 'treasure' when describing the dish, yet only specified 5 'treasures' in the body of the recipe for convenience’s sake.
It’s always called Eight Treasure Rice, though, even if the cook only uses four. The idea is more important than the actual ingredients list. The ‘treasures’ are special and signify prosperity. Even without the Chinese penchant for puns, there is the simple fact that this dish is all about too much of a good thing. In and of itself, it is filling enough to be a meal, and it comes at the end of a truly monumental dinner. Even the rice is special. Glutinous rice is not what one eats every day. It’s a bright white, pearly special grain that cooks to a translucent, tender, sticky state that transcends normal rice. So this dish is rice, that staff of life, transformed into something exceptional.
I have read on a website giving extremely basic information on Wesak (Vesakha), an important Buddhist holiday, that ‘eight’ can refer to the eight-fold path of Buddhism (symbolized by the lotus). In such a case the ba bao fan will definitely include lotus seeds.2 This representation is unfamiliar to my parents, and lotus seeds also have lucky connotations aside from any reference to Buddhism. I believe this is one of those fortuitous coincidences that can happen when cultures meet.
According to one source, 'eight’ was once synonymous with 'many.’3 In this case, the use of eight would merely be an idiomatic way of suggesting plenty. In melodrame’s 8 writeup, 'eight’ is noted as a homophone to 'prosperity’ in Cantonese.
In terms of region of cuisine, I’m inclined to think that ba bao fan is a relatively southern dish, because of the rice. However, because even the rice is special, it may have transcended the rice producing regions and gone north as well.
My familiarity with it has been entirely through the mixture of regional traditions that exists in the communities in Taiwan and the United States. My primary sources have been my parents. My father lived the first 17 years of his life in a small village in Hunan Province. He never had ba bao fan until he went to Taiwan. My mother moved to Taiwan as a child.
There’s also something called La Ba Jook (La ba zhou), which is a very similar dish made as a porridge to celebrate La ba. La ba zhou is served on the eighth day (ba) of the twelfth lunar month (la). This holiday is to celebrate the day of Siddartha Gautama’s (Shakyamuni) enlightenment and the dish is meant to recreate the wonderful porridge given to Shakyamuni before he sat under the bodhi tree. The holiday has become secularized, though and the porridge is very popular outside of its original association.4
There are savory variants of both ba bao fan and la ba zhou, with bits of meats and sausage, mushrooms, wood ear, bamboo shoots, and nuts and sometimes also dried fruit. Again, these are not restricted to eight 'treasures’ and actually will often have more. When Eight Treasure Rice is made in savory form, the 'treasures' are mixed throughout the rice instead of arranged in a design. Buddhists make a vegetarian savory variant with vegetables, mushrooms and nuts.
As I understand it, the two dishes ba bao fan and la ba zhou are unrelated in origin. However, since one dish signifies prosperity and the other is something of a blessing, their meanings may have 'rubbed off' on each other simply by virtue of their similarity, thus adding to the connotations of these dishes. I suspect that this is particularly true for the secularized consumption of la ba zhou.
Eight Treasure Rice (ba bao fan)
2 c. glutinous rice
2.25 c water
2 tbsp. lard or vegetable shortening
3 tbsp. sugar
about 1 c. ‘treasures’ (7 varieties of dried fruit, nuts, etc.)
0.5 c. sweetened red bean paste
1 tbsp. lard or vegetable shortening
1 c. water
3 tbsp. sugar
2 tsp. cornstarch
1.5 tbsp. water
Cook the rice as follows, or use a rice cooker if you have one. Rinse the rice in cold water and drain thoroughly. Place it and 2.25 c. water in a saucepan (1.5 qt., with a tight fitting lid) and let it soak for at least half an hour. Then, uncovered, bring the rice to a boil. When it comes to a boil, reduce the heat to the very lowest possible, immediately cover the pot, and let it simmer gently for 20-25 minutes.
While the rice is cooking, grease a heatproof 6 cup bowl with 1 tbsp. lard or shortening. Arrange the ‘treasures’ in an attractive pattern on the bottom of the bowl. The goal is not to cover all the available space, but to make an attractive open design. The 'treasures’ can curve up the sides, but make sure that they won’t stick up past the 'fill-line’ of the rice. The finished ba bao fan won’t fill the bowl completely, and depending upon the shape and size of your bowl, the finished shape will be deeper or shallower.
Once the rice is cooked, and while it is still hot, add 2 tbsp. lard or shortening and 3 tbsp. sugar. Mix it in, and then place half the sweetened rice in the greased bowl, careful not to disturb the pattern of 'treasures.’ Pack the rice firmly to line the bottom half of the bowl, holding the 'treasures’ in place and leaving a depression in the middle for the red bean paste. Wet your spoon, or if the rice is cool enough, your hands, to prevent the rice from sticking to you as you smooth it out.
Fill in the indentation with the red bean paste and top with the rest of the rice mixture. Pack down the rice and make it level and smooth, using a wet spoon or hand to make sure it is firmly stuck together. Steam for 1 hour (or more, if you can’t get to the pot at exactly an hour, it doesn’t matter at all).
Towards the end of the steaming time make a syrup by bringing 1 c. water and 3 tbsp. sugar to a boil in a small saucepan. Separately, mix the 2 tsp. cornstarch with 1.5 tbsp. water and stir until smooth. When the sugar water boils, add the cornstarch mixture, reduce the heat and stir until it thickens. Once it has thickened, turn off the heat. Optionally, you can flavor this with a few drops of almond extract or a few slivers of fresh ginger.
After the ba bao fan has finished steaming, take the bowl out of the pot, cover it with an upside down serving dish that has a lip (you’ll need the lip for the syrup). Hold the two tightly together and invert to un-mold the rice. Pour the syrup over the rice, making sure to coat the entire ba bao fan. The syrup helps prevent the surface of the rice from drying out and becoming too chewy to eat. It also helps keep the rice from sticking to the serving spoon! Serve immediately.
Ba bao fan is generally brought to the table so that everyone may admire it, and then a serving spoon is used to scoop pie-wedge-like portions. It must be eaten hot, and make sure everyone gets a bit of all the ‘treasures.’
Sweetened Red Bean Paste :
- this is a staple for Chinese sweets, made from azuki or red beans. Just open the can and use as is.
Candied orange peel :
- Candied peel is common, and sometimes all you will see on a restaurant ba bao fan is yellow and green dyed candied citron and cheap red dyed glacé cherries. YUCK! I sent along some (much nicer) candied orange peel my mother made. Some of the pieces were a bit big and would need to be cut down. Think small bite sized!
Candied ginger :
- This isn’t as commonly used, and the pieces are frequently too large. Cut them into strips or small chunks. Again, small bite sized. This stuff is strong!
- They can be used as is.
Red dates (jujubes) :
- These need to be soaked overnight in order to cook properly. Rinse them off, and then place them in a bowl of cold water. You may need to place a plate over them to keep them submerged. The ones I sent are pitted although I generally prefer the ones with the pits. I think they taste better, but pitted was all we had in the house. Be careful even with pitted ones as bits of pit may remain!
Dried lotus seeds:
- These need to be cooked first or else they will be too hard to eat. Bring them to a boil in some water, and then reduce the heat and let them simmer gently until tender. When lining the bowl, split them in half so they don’t roll around. Candied lotus seeds are ready to eat and can be purchased in Asian food markets, and can be used without cooking.
- The ones I sent aren’t your standard almonds. The bag calls them ‘almond seeds.’ I’m not sure, but I have a sneaking suspicion that they are blanched, split small bitter almonds (Amygdalus Orientalis). They are quite a bit more ‘almond-y’ than regular almonds. These also should be cooked until just tender, and can be cooked with the lotus seeds. Note, they may be tiny, but these take forever to cook. If you don’t mind a bit of crunch, you can skimp on the cooking. But they really do need some cooking or the texture difference will be unpleasantly jarring. Also, if you eat enough of them, the cyanide may kill you. Cooking dissipates the traces of toxin, making them safe for eating.
- This is not that common an ingredient, but also not entirely outlandish. Chinese chestnuts tend to be smaller than their Italian counterparts. For convenience sake I sent pre-cooked snacking chestnuts, since otherwise they would need to be cooked until tender. They are still a bit large and can be cut in half. Generally, peanuts are more common, but I didn’t have any raw peanuts lying around. The roasted salted ones commonly available just don’t cut it. They would have to be raw peanuts that are then boiled until just tender, and then split in half so they don’t roll around.
A helpful resource for food substitutions, with lots of pictures if you’re not sure what something is: www.foodsubs.com
1 for an irreverent rundown of these eight popular people see: www.godchecker.com/gotw/013_eight_immortals.php
- For a less irreverent look, try: www.chebucto.ns.ca/Philosophy/Taichi/gods.html#pa-hsien
- 3 www.ccnt.com.cn/tradition/jieri/jieri/laba.htm
- 4 www.chinatoday.com.cn/English/chinatours/chineseculture2.htm