Eight-treasure Millet Tea
Babao chatang is a type of gruel made from millet flour and sugar, with eight different types of fruits and nuts added to create better flavour.
Babao chatang (eight-treasure millet tea) is a kind of gruel made from millet flour and sugar, with eight different fruit ingredients being added to create a better flavour. As a traditional Beijing snack, it was said to first appear during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) and became popular between the late Ming Dynasty and the early Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). During the Qing Dynasty, it was served as a palace snack by the imperial kitchen. It was later introduced to Tianjin, and the preparation remained the same. Those who wanted better flavour would add dried oranges, lotus seeds, walnut, red jujubes, pieces of melon, sesame seeds and green plums and mix them in boiled water. Fragrant, sweet and smooth, it was known as the “eight-treasure millet.”
the gruel is prepared with millet flour and eight different fruits and nuts, so, why is it called “tea”? That is because its preparation is similar tothe way tea is made.
Those who have seen the TV series Sishi tongtang ( Four Generations under One Roof ) might find the following scenes familiar. When the old man Qi went to buy clay rabbits for the Mid- Autumn Festival from a street vendor, there was another vendor selling “tea of millet flour and sugar.” A big shiny
copper kettle with a dragon- headshaped spout was steaming. The water in the kettle was boiling over a coal fire and whistled when it was ready. With one hand holding a bowl and the other lifting the kettle, the vendor poured the boiling water into the bowl. The tea was ready. Only boiling water can be used. Millet gruel was prepared the way tea was made and therefore called “millet and fruit tea.” The big shiny copper kettle and sound of the whistle created an interesting picture featuring Beijing culture and also looked tempting to passers- by.
The big copper kettle weighs around 40 kilograms. To make the millet gruel, one has to be strong and skilled as well. It looks very simple, but is prepared using professional methods.
In “Haozui Yangba” (“the glib Yang Ba”),” a story in “Sushi qiren“(“the legendary figures”) by Feng Jicai, a famous writer and folklorist from Tianjin, there is a vivid description of how the millet gruel is prepared. “When customers come, the vendor quickly puts three spoonfuls of pink husked sorghum powder into a small bowl. With his right hand holding the bowl under the spout of the copper kettle, and standing about a metre away from the kettle, he lifts the handle with his left hand and pours the steaming hot water into the bowl. The gruel is made, without any water or millet flour being spilled. With three spoonfuls of brown sugar added and a steel spoon to eat it with, the gruel is ready.”
One may have noticed that Feng mentioned “husked sorghum” in his book and may wonder whether Feng mistook it for millet. He was right. Millet flour is used in preparing Beijing-style gruel. It is one of the five oldest cereals in China. After the millet gruel was introduced to Tianjin, Ma Fuqing, the founder of the well-known “Ma Gruel,” changed millet to husked sorghum to cater to the locals’ taste. Sorghum flour is coarser but locals preferred it. Feng offered an authentic description on how gruel was made in Tianjin.
Speaking of the millet gruel in old Beijing, the brands Ju Yuan Zhai in the area outside of Qianmen Gate and the “Li Millet Gruel” in the Tianqiao area were best known for the sweet, mellow and delicate flavour and apricot- yellow colour. The preparation of millet gruel goes as follows. First, wash the millet grains and then soak them in cold water for two hours. Then dry them out and grind into a powder and sift it. Fill the kettle with cold water and boil it. Then put the millet powder in a bowl and pour boiling water on it. Add brown sugar, white sugar, sweetened osmanthus blossoms, hawthorn strips, red and green dried fruit shreds, raisins, walnut kernel and shelled sunflower seeds.
Millet gruel was usually seen on festive occasions. In the old days, children were often glad to have a bowl of glutinous, smooth and sweet millet gruel on the Lantern Festival or at temple fairs. The copper kettle with hot steam rising out of the spout is amazing in children’s eyes. When the vendor, despite standing a distance from the kettle, poured the boiling water directly into the bowl, he would be always greeted with cheers and applause. Passersby had the impulse to try their hand at it themselves.
There is another traditional Beijing-flavoured snack that looks similar to millet gruel ( chatang).
It is called seasoned millet mush ( miancha). Only one character differentiate their Chinese names, the two snacks are totally different. But many young people tend to mistake one for the other.
In previous years, seasoned millet mush was usually served in the afternoon while millet gruel was available all day-long as a traditional snack. The biggest difference between the two snacks is the flavour: Millet gruel is sweet whereas seasoned millet mush is salty.
Millet flour is also used in making seasoned millet mush. First, grind millet grains, star anise and salt into powder and boil it in water. Then add soda powder and ginger juice and boil for a while longer until the mixture becomes a paste. Put the mush in a bowl and pour some sesame paste over it. When pouring the sesame paste, make sure it is sticky enough to be poured down in circles. After salty sesame powder is added, the seasoned millet mush is ready to be served.
Making seasoned millet mush may look simple enough, but the drinking of it is rather professional. Old Beijingers go into detail when it comes to eating and drinking, and seasoned millet mush is no exception. When eating the seasoned millet mush, a Beijinger needs neither chopsticks nor spoon.
Aside from the eight-treasure millet tea in Beijing and Tianjin, the “millet gruel boiled with spring water” in Jinan, Shandong Province is also noted for its spring water. The ingredients include black sesame seeds, bits of peanuts, raisins, brown sugar and white sugar. All these ingredients are ground and mixed together. Before being served, it is infused with natural spring water. When ready, it is thick, glutinous and tastes a little like lotus root starch, offering a lingering refreshingly fragrant taste.
Eight-treasure millet tea, just like all Beijing snacks, offers a flavour different from staple food as well as a good feeling of interacting with people in everyday life. It is more of a lifestyle than a snack, which can’t be truly felt until one experiences it for himself or herself.