I’m so glad I finally made this sticky glutinous rice cake! This has been on my to-do list since time immemorial 😀
And what better way to have this auspicious cake posted on Chinese New Year day!
GONG XI FA CAI!
Being half Chinese, this dessert has criss-crossed my Mum’s house in Kuching zillion times during the Chinese New Years gone by. She either got the cake as a gift from friends and relatives or she had made the cake herself. There was a time, when we received an abundance of the sweet sticky cake, to the point that my Mum would fill her two fridges to the brim, metaphorically speaking 😉
We did not mind a bit that our fridges were stuffed with the sweet sticky cakes. And by the way, the cake has a name, “nian gao“. It is believed to bring good fortune if one consumes nian gao. According to Wikipediia, “nian gao” in Chinese Mandarin, is literally translated as ‘Year High’. Coincidentally, the Chinese word “nián” means ‘sticky’ and is identical in sound to ‘year’. Similarly, “gāo” means ‘cake’, which is identical in sound to ‘high or tall’. Having said that, eating nian gao has a symbolic meaning of raising oneself higher in each coming year, be it a promotion at work or, for a child, growing taller. And OMG… I haven’t had nian gao in years! I reckoned my achievement had stagnated from my last bite of the sticky sweet snack many donkeys’ years ago. Jeez….I hope not. Touch wood 😉
Legend has it …
Oh by the way, an interesting legend has it that nian gao is made each new year as an offering to the Kitchen God, with the main purpose of keeping his mouth shut. The Kitchen God is said to make a report of each human (Chinese) family to the Jade Emperor if they have been good or bad that year. By offering the nian gao to the Kitchen God will avoid him from badmouthing to the Celestial Court, as his mouth will be stuck with the sticky cake. He will not be able to talk a lot or too fast.
Whether, it’s true or not, many Chinese families keep the legend going to this day.
The many faces of nian gao
Not long ago I had a brief discussion with some friends about the word nian gao. The nian gao I knew was the sticky brown glutinous rice cake, which I have just discussed, however, one of my friends said the nian gao she knew was the white rice cake, which is usually stir fried with soy sauce, meat and vegetables as a savoury dish. Hmmm… interesting…
Brown + sweet vs white + savoury? Golly gosh! Two opposite poles! There must be an attraction at some point?
The only ‘attraction’ is the fact that China is such a vast country. Different provinces have their own language (dialect) and food! Nian gao being one of them. My friend was not wrong when she referred to nian gao as the white rice cake prepared as a savoury dish, because that’s where the dish is commonly served in Shanghai!
This was what I had for lunch today, the Shanghainese version of stir-fried nian gao. Just so you have an idea 😜
The nian gao that is most popularly served in Malaysia and Singapore is originated from Fujian (Hokkien-speaking) and Guangdong (Cantonese-speaking) provinces. THE nian gao I am referring to in this post is the Cantonese-style, made the Malaysian way in Belgium 😉
Japan and Korea have similar glutinous rice snacks, known as mochi and tteok respectively,
In Malaysia, this sticky snack is called Kuih Bakul (Cake in a Basket) in Malay, due to the fact that the banana leaf is used to tuck the cake in. The Straits Chinese or Peranakan Chinese or Baba-Nyonya of the Hokkien ancestary called this cake, “Tee Kueh” (Sweet Cake). Tee Kueh was exactly the word I grew up knowing. It was not nian gao. Surprisingly, the Chinese Filipino and Burmese also called the cake, “tikoy“. We definitely see China spreading her wings in the food we eat. Almost the same ingredients used in China years ago are preserved and retained by Chinese families today in Malaysia, Singapore, and elsewhere in East and South East Asia. As one of my brothers used to say, ” You can take a Malaysian out of Malaysia, but you cannot take Malaysia out of a Malaysian”. The same is true if you replaced Malaysian/Malaysia with Chinese/China.
Labour of Love
There are only 3 ingredients used to make nian gao. Glutinous rice flour, sugar and water or coconut milk. Sounds simple, right? But it’s the hours and hours of constant stirring if done the traditional way (similar to making dodol) or hours and hours of steaming, as is done in the contemporary kitchen.
I steamed my nian gao for only half the original time. 5 hours instead of 10! I have 2 reasons for halving the time –
1. I started steaming the cake at 5.30pm. I had to be in bed by 11pm as it was a work day the following day , hence, I set the timer to stop at 10.30 pm.
2. I did not make a huge portion
This is a family recipe where I chose to use coconut milk over water.
400 g glutinous rice flour, sieved
200 g brown sugar ( I used cassonade brown sugar)
200 g organic cane sugar
400 ml coconut milk
Banana leaves to line a round dish ( I used ramekins and frozen banana leaves, cleaned and dabbed dry with absorbent papers).
Heat the coconut milk and sugar until the sugar is dissolved. Let cool. Sieve the flour and pour in the coconut milk caramel. Mix well with a balloon whisk for at least 10 minutes until a smooth sticky batter consistency. Pour the batter in round ramekins lined with banana leaves.
If you have all the time in the world, steam the cake for 10 to 12 hours. Unfortunately I did not have a lot of time to spare, hence, I shortened the steaming time to exactly 5 hours. I was not at all disappointed with the outcome. On the contrary. I loved the colour and the smooth finished texture.
Et voilà !
I made 3 nian gao. One bigger ramekin and 2 small ones.
You will notice that the colour changes after the refrigeration process.
The purpose of refrigerating the cake is to harden it, so it will be more manageable when cutting with a knife. But of course you can eat it as is, warm and sticky, but I want to transform the cake into one of my childhood favourite snacks.
I’m submitting this post to “My Treasured Recipes #5 – Chinese New Year Goodies (Jan/Feb 2015)” hosted by Miss B of Everybody Eats Well in Flanders and co-hosted by Charmaine of Mimi Bakery House
If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody and share your happiness. ~Chinese Proverb~
Happy Lunar New Year to all celebrants!