The Laba Festival, said to mark the day the Buddha attained enlightenment, also marks the beginning of preparations and celebrations for the Chinese New Year which falls on the January 31st.
People across China celebrate the Laba festival by eating porridge (zhōu, 粥), which is believed to be a symbol of good fortune, long life, and a fruitful harvest.
Unlike porridge known to most westerners, Chinese porridge is not made from oats but is instead made from rice, beans or grain.
Traditionally, Laba congee includes eight main and eight supplementary ingredients in accordance with "ba" (八), which means eight in Chinese. The main ingredients include a selection of beans, rice, nuts and meat, while the supplementary ingredients consist of a number of fruits such as Chinese dates.
Making Laba congee can be a laborious effort. The soaking of some ingredients, such as dried longan, lotus seeds, lily roots, chestnuts, Chinese dates, and millet, can take up to 12 hours, and subsequent cooking on a low heat can take up to 6 hours!
The earliest form of this dish was cooked with red beans but has since developed to incorporate many different kinds.
Along with Laba noodles and Laba Tofu, another major tradition is to pickle garlic in vinegar on Laba day, prepared by placing garlic cloves in vinegar and leaving them until they turn green. About twenty days later, the Laba garlic (suàn, 蒜) and vinegar (cù, 醋) will be ready to eat alongside dumplings during the Lunar New Year.
The eating of pickled garlic is said to stem from the fact that in the Chinese language the word garlic shares the same pronunciation as the word 'calculate' (suàn, 算). It is said that in ancient times merchants would calculate income and expenses on the eighth day of the twelfth lunar month. Another version of the story suggests that creditors would collect debts on this day.
According to an ancient Chinese proverb, "A year's harvest counts on spring; a man's success and counts on his diligence." Thus much importance is placed upon the eating of congee before the start of the spring festival.
Laba congee is also consumed to commemorate the Song Dynasty general Yue Fei, who is widely regarded as a patriot and national hero in Chinese culture. It is also said that the eating of Laba congee increased after Zhu Yuanzhang (the Hongwu Emperor), the founder of the Ming Dynasty, ate congee during the hard times he experienced before he rose to power and that after becoming emperor he asked the people to eat congee as well. Given the link to Buddhism, Laba congee is sometimes referred to as "Buddha congee" to remember the Buddha's path to enlightenment.
Whilst many Chinese might not make such connections, their love of congee has not waned, and the eating of Laba congee is very much enjoyed today [January 8th], the Laba Festival.