• When Mahayana Buddhism travelled to China from India, the tradition of eating curd was replaced with congee. (Getty)
The festival probably sees the most congee being made - and eaten - at the one time.
By
Rachel Bartholomeusz

22 Jan 2018 - 4:34 PM  UPDATED 22 Jan 2018 - 9:29 AM

In the pre-dawn hours of this coming Wednesday, devotees will gather in the dark kitchen of Nan Tien in Wollongong, the largest Buddhist temple in the Southern Hemisphere, to make congee.

Chinese Mahayana Buddhist temples across Australia will hand out this special congee on the day, a tradition of the Laba Festival, which falls on the eighth day of the 12th lunar month.

Nan Tien Temple in the city of Wollongong in the south of NSW is the largest Buddhist temple in the Southern Hemisphere.

For devotees, the day commemorates the moment Buddha reached enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, according to Reverend Miaoyou of Nan Tien Temple, which translates to 'paradise of the Southern Hemisphere'.

“Buddha was on his last legs in terms of health, and when he went to the river to drink, a shepherd girl gave him some curd,” she says.

When Mahayana Buddhism travelled to China from India, the tradition of eating curd was replaced with congee

Mahayana is the largest of the two major branches of Buddhism (the other being Theravada), and is commonly followed in China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Tibet, Mongolia and Vietnam, among other places.

The Mahayana tradition emphasises that Buddhahood or enlightenment is within everyone's potential reach, according to Reverend Miaoyou.

CONGEE RECIPE
Chilli and garlic congee with shiitake mushrooms

A mainstay of the Chinese breakfast circuit, traditional congee can be a little underwhelming for some western palates. However, when supercharged with garlic, chilli and shiitake mushrooms, this humble rice soup transforms into a colourful and comforting dinner with a personality of its own.

When Buddhism travelled to China from India around the fourth century, the locals replaced the tradition of eating curd with congee.

In Taiwan, where the Nan Tien temple's order has its headquarters, the congee is made and distributed freely every day of the year.

A congee of eight parts

While regular congee will often be a simple dish made from one or two ingredients, Laba congee, also known as eight-treasure congee, usually consists of eight vegetarian ingredients. 

To the glutinous rice, the temple volunteers will add lotus seeds, black-eyed beans, chickpeas, Chinese mushrooms, carrots, red dates, peanuts and yam. Some of these ingredients will need to soak overnight.

The flavours of the congee depend on the produce grown in the region it's being made.

The volunteers at Nan Tien plan to cook up to one thousand large bowls of the dish by the time dawn breaks on the special day.

While the rice, beans, fruits and nuts are staple elements, the exact recipe differs depending on what is at hand.

The volunteers at Nan Tien plan to cook up to one thousand large bowls of the dish by the time dawn breaks on the special day.

Laba congee recipes tell the story of regional produce in China and beyond – the particular nut, or bean or fruit that you put in your congee is determined by what is locally available.

Reverend Miaoyou says those who are not religious also celebrate this cultural holiday in the same way non-Christians would celebrate Christmas. 

Just as the festival itself has grown beyond religious ties to a widespread celebration, so too has its congee, and the dish has become a common fixture throughout northern China’s cold winters.

Getting ready for the Chinese New Year

While Mahayana Buddhists see this day as a religious celebration, for others the date is about preparing for the Chinese New Year also known as the Spring Festival, which will be held in mid-February in 2018.

Strict devotees of Mahayana Buddhism at Nan Tien Temple do not eat garlic or onion.

However many families, particularly in China’s north, partake in another food tradition on this day: preparing Laba garlic ahead of the Spring Festival.

 

Aged cloves of garlic are pickled in a vinegar and sugar solution, causing a chemical reaction that turns the garlic a bright blue-green, , the colour considered auspicious rather than suspicious. In northern China it is not uncommon for prized vinegar shops to have large queues braving the cold in the lead up to festival.

The garlic forms part of the new year's table, where it is commonly paired with fried dumplings to cut through their oiliness. These cloves – sour, sharp and sweet – are left to pickle in the dwindling days of the year, as anticipation builds for the next one. 

 

CELEBRATORY FOOD
Brown rice larb congee

A play on the traditional khao tom gung (rice congee), Thailand's beloved king of breakfasts. Instead of white rice, we've used brown, which does not break down completely, resulting in a satisfying congee with grunt.

Salted fish and peanut congee

This porridge-like dish of rice is popular in many Asian countries for breakfast and for dinner. Congee can be served plain as a side dish, or, as we’ve done here, served with meat to make a more substantial meal.

Healthy sweet congee

A classic Chinese breakfast, this sweet congee can be eaten warm or cold. It delivers a mix of rice, fungus and dried fruit and herbs – ingredients thought in Chinese traditional medicine to boost health and vitality.

Chicken congee (arroz caldo)

Filipino food is heavily influenced by Chinese cuisine, yet all Filos consider arroz caldo part of the national food culture. The cumquats in this version add a new dimension to a delicately flavoured dish.