Babaofan: A sweet and sticky Chinese New Year tradition
For a simple dish, Eight Treasure Rice (babaofan 八宝饭) has a rich history. One story from 1123 BC claims the dessert was invented to commemorate eight warriors in a triumphant battle against a despotic king. Another claims that a general in the Song Dynasty fled a losing battle and nearly starved to death, before discovering a rat’s winter store of grains, nuts and fruits. He survived by cooking up the world’s first babaofan in his battle helmet.
This celebrated rice pudding, a sweet and sticky rice dish traditionally eaten on Chinese New Year and which features eight dried fruits and nuts, is also named in the history books as a favorite dish of the Empress Ci Xi.
When I was little we had big families with grandparents, aunts and uncles, everyone living together. Now most people have small families and so they just buy babaofan rather than cook it. Young people don’t really cook anymore.— Chef Feng, Le Royal Meridien
Modern day babaofan
However long its original heritage, babaofan has been a beloved new year food since childhood for Borbon Feng, a sous chef at Le Royal Meridien Shanghai. “I made babaofan when I was a little kid with my grandfather and my mom, that was around 30 years ago,” he says. "You couldn’t buy it in a shop then. You had to make it yourself. But whether you buy it or cook it, you must eat babaofan over the holiday.”
Steven Yang, Chinese executive chef at the JW Marriott, agrees. “Babaofan is very traditional. It’s one of those things you must eat every year. I have very warm memories of eating it when I was little. At that time, it was one of the most important new year foods, along with niangao (rice flour cakes), tangyuan (rice flour balls in sweet soup), fish, and duck or chicken.”
Cooking up tradition
And there's no reason not to get involved in this culinary story. “It’s easy to make! The only troublesome part is you have to buy all eight ingredients,” says Yang, who admits that his family has bought the dessert in recent years.
Feng say: “When I was little we had big families with grandparents, aunts and uncles, everyone living together. Now most people have small families and so they just buy babaofan rather than cook it. Young people don’t really cook anymore.”
Here's a simple recipe right for those who want to buck the trend.
Babaofan recipe from Chef Steven Yang, JW Marriott
- Glutinous rice 200g (before steaming)
- Sweetened bean paste 200g
- Lard 100g, plus some for coating bowl
- Sugar 100g, or less, to taste
- Red dates
- Lotus seeds
- Pine nuts
- Dried apricot
Babaofan note: If you don't like any of these traditional ingredients, choose any eight of your preferred seeds, nuts or dried fruits.
- Cook the glutinous rice, then mix with the sugar and lard.
- Coat the inside of a heat-proof bowl with lard, then arrange all your fruits and nuts in an attractive design at the bottom.
- On top of the arranged fruits, pack the bowl halfway to the top with the sticky rice mixture, then spread sweetened bean paste in a layer on top. Fill the rest of the bowl with sticky rice and press down firmly.
- Steam the bowl for around 20 minutes (tip: if you don’t have a steamer, place your bowl on an upside down plate inside a pan of simmering water and then cover it all with a large lid).
- Let cool slightly and then turn onto a plate and serve hot, or chill in the fridge to eat cold.
- Can be topped with sugar syrup before serving.
Babaofan note: For cooks who prefer not to use lard, Chef Yang says almost any oil can be substituted, just avoid strong flavored oils like sesame oil.