八宝粥, literally to mean “Eight Treasures Porridge” is a traditional congee concoction enjoyed on 腊月初八 the 8th day of the 12th month in the Chinese Lunar Calendar, hence giving rise to its other name, 腊八粥. Having it roots in Buddhism, the history of this dish can be traced back more than 2200 years back to the Han dynasty when it was generally used as part of prayer offerings and not consumed. Interestingly during the Song dynasty more than 800 years ago , the folks then began enjoying this porridge for themselves, causing it to evolve and change to reflect the culinary characteristics of each period in history, as well as in accordance to personal taste and liking.
My parents, being really traditional chinese folks, are firm believers of the effects of traditional chinese medicine (TCM). That meant an assortment of remedies in the form of brews and stews to shelf-available medication for minor ailments, like 川贝枇杷膏 chuan bei pi pa gao for coughs and sore throats, 银翘解毒片 yin qiao jie du pian when we are feeling slightly feverish, or 保济丸 po chai pills when one’s having the runs. Some of these concoctions are really quite pleasant, like 炖燕窝 bird’s nest soup and 三雪湯, a sweet soup made with hasma (雪蛤), snow fungus (雪耳) and chinese pear (雪梨）which not only nourishes the body, but taste good too! I really didn’t mind when asked if I want seconds. But some are quite dreadful, like 苦茶 ku cha, which literally translates to “bitter tea”, owing to a mélange of chinese herbs used, building up to that ultimate palate experience of extremity, and 羚羊露 leng yeung luk, essentially made from water double boiled with antelope horn shavings, in my opinion is another epitome of disgust. Now these are the things that ought to be featured on “Fear Factor”! But as the classic Chinese saying goes, 良药苦口利于病, most of these awful-tasting TCM are downed amidst all that whining, wailing, coaxing and even bribery for sweet treats later on.
One of the most common TCM herbal soups we enjoyed at home is 药炖乌骨鸡 Herbal Silkie Black Chicken, especially during this time of the year when the weather turns slightly chilly accompanied by lots of moisture from the monsoons. Older folks believe that it is important to prepare the body for such “changes in season” and strength one’s constitution so as to prevent ourselves from falling sick，and hence the practice of 立冬进补. I hadn’t been sleeping well of late and as I was getting ready for a holiday to Taiwan, I wanted to make sure that my body was ready to brace all that walking, shopping and eating. Hence, a little “treat” for myself and my family with this familiar soup which hadn’t been made for quite some time at home.