Eight-trea­sure Mil­let Tea

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Wu Li Edited by Mark Zuiderveld Photo by Zhang Xin

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.

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