Babao Porridge (Babaozhou, Babaofan), a sweet rice porridge stuffed with dates, lotus seeds and other fruits, is an extremely interesting example of a traditional product revived by industrial production. The concept of babao is used in more traditional foods, e.g. zongzi, filled steamed rice cubes wrapped in leaves, which are introduced in a separate post of this blog.
Present day Babao Porridge is derived from a southern type of porridge called Laba Porridge. La refers to the La month, the last month of the lunar calendar and ba (‘eight’) to the eighth day of that month. On the 8th day of the lunar 12th month people used to prepare a porridge using eight or more ingredients to celebrate the end of the year. Another story explains the custom as a Buddhist tradition.
Laba porridge was first cooked as a sacrifice for ancestors and gods during Laba Festival as a part of winter worship. In an agricultural society, the 12th month or layue (腊月) was a time when families consumed some of their stores from the harvest season. Cooking a porridge with rich and varied ingredients is a way to celebrate a prosperous harvest for the year, in hopes of a better one to follow.
Just like Christmas overtaking the ancient Roman holiday of Saturnalia, when Buddhism arrived in China, it stamped its own influence on this local tradition. For Buddhists, Laba Festival is also Buddha’s Enlightenment Day.
The legend says that Shakyamuni, after 6 years of seeking enlightenment by living frugally, once sat down under a tree, dead tired. A woman herding cows saw him and prepared a simple porridge for him using course cereals and wild fruits. Shakyamuni was so revived from eating a bowl of that porridge, that he immediately gained enlightenment. From that day on, Buddhist Temples prepared a similar type of porridge on the 8th of each 12th month.
With the increasing pace of life, modern Chinese are less and less willing to spend several hours a day in the kitchen. This includes less frequently prepared foods like Babao Porridge.
The basic production process is easy enough. The raw materials are mixed and cooked, cooled and then packed in cans, similar to those used to pack soft drinks. In this way, the porridge can be easily consumed as a convenient food, while travelling, as a snack during office work, etc. A plastic spoon is usually attached to the can, so the traveller does need to pack a metal spoon from the kitchen either.
Buddhist monestaries have to abide by the law as well, so more and more temples are producing laba porridge in a semi-industrialised clean way, to ensure that the faithful do not have to pay dearly for enjoying a bowl of laba porridge with food poisening. On the way, it earns the monestary a lot more income as well.
The most essential aspect of the production of Babao Porridge is the combination of emulsifiers and thickeners. Babao Porridge consists of a viscous liquid part and solid parts. Manufacturers need to formulate the product in such a way, that the solid parts are more or less evenly distributed over the liquid part upon opening of the can.
A number of Chinese manufacturers of emulsifiers and thickeners supply products specially formulated for Babao Porridge. Some sources propagate CMC as the most appropriate thickener for this application.
A combination of CMC and a low calorie high intensity sweetener to replace the sugar will not only provide an authentic mouthfeel, but also decrease the caloric value.
Industrial recipes for so called ‘low calorie Babao Porridge,’ proposed by manufacturers of ingredients use sticky rice as the macro-ingredient, where part of the rice can be replaced with pumpkin. Various combinations of fruits (dates are most popular) and nuts (including peanuts) are added. Frequently suggested micro-ingredients and additives: pumpkin powder, xylitol, oligoxylose, CMC, konjac powder, and EDTA.
As a result of all the recent food safety problems, Chinese consumers have become more aware of ingredients and started asking if one food really needs so different ingredients. A recent article (24/9/2014) criticises the use of xanthan in one brand of Babao Porridge. Xanthan is known in the porridge industry under the nickname zhoubao, literally: ‘porridge treasure’. The reporter believes it is a means to hide the lack of skills of the manufacturer to produce a proper porridge.
The following brands are recognised as China’s top brands for Babao porridge
The Yinlu Food Group was established in Xiamen (Fujian) in 1985 as producer of canned food and beverages. It is still one of China’s top producers of protein drinks. It now operates production units in Shandong, Hubei, Anhui and Sichuan. Nestlé has acquired a controlling stake in Yinlu, nut has announced that it intends to sell that stake again early 2020.
The Wahaha Group was established in Hangzhou (Zhejiang) in 1987 as a private company operated by a school, producing tonic for school children. The founder and CEO, Mr. Zong Qinghou, is currently one of China’s richest entrepreneurs. Wahaha has 150 subsidiaries in all regions of China, employing 30,000 people. It ranks among China’s top 500 companies in 2014 It is a relatively new player in this market, but has rapidly risen to this position. The range includes a babao porridge sweetened with xylitol. Wahaha has started a new campaign for its canned porridge range in January 2015, stressing that the company is being loyal to the Chinese tradition of porridge making. The following picture says that Wahaha’s Babao Porridge ‘tastes just like mother used to cook it’
Wahaha has launched another type of nutritious Babao Porridge mid 2018, under the Qingzhi brand.
Koji, plant sterols, sugar, glutenous rice, barley kernels, red beans, maltitol, black rice, peanuts, red kidney beans, hulless barley, tremella, lecithin, sucrose ester, fatty acids, sodium tri-polyphosphate, acesulfame-k, EDTA-2Na, sucralose, water
Based in Guangzhou (Guangdong), Qinqi was the first in China to launch Babao porridge in cans, which created the market for ready to drink Babao porridge. Although no longer the number one brand, Qinqi still bears the honorary name ‘porridge king’.
This brand is owned by the Xinxin Food Group, established in Yangzhou (Jiangsu) in 1991, by a local factory and a Taiwan investor. It produces a range of convenience foods, including Babao porridge.
The name of the producer, Tongfu Bowl Porridge Co., Ltd., betrays that it is dedicated to producing exactly that: porridge in (plastic) bowls. Tongfu was the first to introduce this type of packaging in China. It is considerably lighter than the canned version. It is located in Wuhu (Anhui)
Corona was good for Babao porridge
Babao porridge sales went through the ceiling during the first quarter of 2020, when the entire Chinese nation went into quarantine at home. It turned out to be the ideal corona food, besides instant noodles and other packed fast foods.
More nutritious and high end
Babao porridge entered the high end sector in 2022, when Huangxiaozhu launched its series of zero sugar low fat nutritious babao porridge. Flavours included coconut-water chestnut and and black sesame – taro. The packaging was also inspired by the ongoing nationalist trend (guochao).
Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation. He is a co-author of a major book introducing the cultural drivers behind China’s economic success.