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This is ba bao fan, or "Eight Treasure Rice," one of my favorite uses for glutinous rice. For breakfast, I mix sticky rice with a small amount of lard, add in chopped walnuts and currants, and bury a few generous spoonfuls of red bean paste in the center. When it's done, the rice gets drizzled with honey.
Eight-treasure rice pairs glutinous rice with red bean paste and an assortment of dried fruits and nuts—eight different kinds. Some translations of the dish call it a pudding, but I don't think that's accurate. During steaming the rice grows soft and sticky, but it does not break down into a starchy mass at all. It just happens to be a very sweet way to enjoy glutinous rice.
In the traditional rendition, the rice takes the form of a dome. While it's raw, the rice is mixed with the lard, then steamed along with the red bean paste and the fruits and nuts. Traditionally, the fruits and nuts, which go along the bottom of a bowl, are bound with the rice and the red bean paste is carefully placed in the middle. When you invert the cooked rice onto a plate, the dome of rice has mosaic-like patterns. To top it all off, the whole concoction gets drenched in a sugar syrup.
Why eight? Eight is a lucky number in Chinese culture. The number is a homynym for various other words with positive connotations. (In China, by the way, you can go to fortunetellers who issue you a series of numbers based on whatever ailments you have. Every morning my grandmother says out loud a series of numbers that are supposed to assist in regularity, like fiber and Metamucil.) Of course I've never placed any store in such superstitions, seeing as how six and nine are also auspicious. It's just too easy to be lucky or unlucky under the system.
So I never make it to eight different items. Besides the hassle, I don't even like some of the things that go in there, like marischino cherries. I really just want to eat sticky rice and red bean paste, hence my own simplified version of it.
Other possible additions to the rice: jujubees (Chinese dates), lychees, raisins, walnuts, sunflower seeds, watermelon seeds. I like to vary the type of honey that's drizzled onto the rice. The honey is more than enough sweet considering how much red bean paste goes in there too.
While you can get away with trimming down on the sugar and the toppings, I do think that lard or some form of fat is necessary to the dish. Without lard, the rice just tastes like, well, rice. You don't need very much—about a teaspoon per serving, but the fat gives the dish its signature feel. It also lends a hint of something savory or meaty to an otherwise sweet dish, and I love the balance of that. For whatever reason, if you must refrain from lard, you can use vegetable shortening, but then the pearly translucent grains won't taste porky. The choice is yours, of course. I'm just providing the pork lover's caveat.
Note: Ba bao fan is a staple in Chinese cuisines, so much so that you can buy it in cans and steam them at home. I have the same hankering for the canned versions as I do for ramen. It tastes somehow like fake food, and this is not at all a bad thing.
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