As might be evident from my previous posts, some of my most nostalgic food memories were made at the family dining room table, where I scarfed down homey dishes with utter disregard for table manners. But I’d be omitting a pretty significant part of my childhood if I didn’t devote any attention to the plastic-wrapped and canned, likely highly processed but utterly crave-worthy lunchbox staples that I brought with me to summer camps. Like most kids, I had my share of Lunchables, but packaged Asian foods always made their way into my brown paper bag as well. Translucent lychee jellies, sugar-glazed crispy rice biscuits, tiny foil-topped bottles of sweet milk and cardboard cartons of mango juice - until I moved to a more Asian neighborhood in New Jersey, these novel delicacies made for daily talking points among the Lunchables crowd.
Ba bao zhou, or eight treasure congee, was the most foreign treat to my schoolmates. Everything else bore some slight resemblance to whatever you could find from the Pepperidge Farm-stocked aisles of the local supermarkets. But the sticky red-and-purple pudding that came in an aluminum can covered with brushstroke characters, reminiscent of the temporary tattoos we slapped on our wrists and ankles but otherwise utterly unfamiliar… let’s just say I was never asked to share congee. Fine by me! It was a sweet snack to be slurped greedily straight from the container, the tiny spoon attached to the lid set aside and ignored.
Unsurprisingly, Chinese food producers managed to make this treat incredibly processed and unhealthy, but the base ingredients are as nutritious as it gets. Filled with high protein beans and whole grains, naturally sweetened with dates and chestnuts, and requiring only a touch of extra sugar (although you can pile it on if you wish), eight treasure congee tastes like a cheat meal but really isn’t. Here, I combined the memories of my elementary school snacks with a more recent bandwagon I’ve jumped on – chia pudding – for a satisfyingly healthy breakfast. My “eight” treasures are really nine, with four types of beans, two types of rice, chestnuts, dates, and peanuts. Other common options include barley, sorghum grain, or walnuts; congee is always highly customizable. It’s easy, too, and can be made in advance, equally good warm or cold.
By nature, I’m a morning person, but knowing that ba bao zhou is in my refrigerator has me leaping out of bed in the morning. This version is exactly as I remember: thick and sweet, syrupy but hearty too. These days, however, my palate is a little more mature and I can no longer claim that it pairs well with Pizza Lunchables... although I'll note that this point has stayed constant: one batch serves 4-6, but sharing is optional.
Eight Treasure Layered Chia Pudding Recipe (serves 4-6)
- 3 tbsp red beans
- 1 tbsp mung beans
- 1 tbsp white beans
- 1 tbsp black beans
- 6 dried chestnuts
- 2 tbsp peanuts
- 2 tbsp black rice
- 2 tbsp sticky rice
- 5 large dried dates
- Scant 1/4 tsp of baking soda
- 4 1/2 cups of water
- 1 cup of milk
- 3 tbsp of chia seeds
- Brown sugar, to taste
Prep: pre-soak the red beans, mung beans, white beans, black beans, and chestnuts (if using dried), for 8 hours or overnight.
First round of cooking: Set rice cooker to porridge setting and add the red beans, mung beans, white beans, and black beans with 4 1/2 cups of water and the baking soda. Baking soda will help make the congee extra sticky and soft. My rice cooker goes for ~1 hour on the porridge setting before going to the "cancel/keep warm" setting. Meanwhile, soak the chia seeds in milk and set aside to make chia pudding layer; they'll need 2-3 hours to plump up.
Second round of cooking: Add the chestnuts, peanuts, black rice, sticky rice, and dates to the rice cooker and set for another round on the porridge setting.
Assembly: Alternate generous layers of eight treasure congee with thinner layers of chia pudding and enjoy with desired amount of brown sugar.