My family doesn’t celebrate Chinese New Year in a big way. In fact, my dad has always insisted we are NOT Chinese. My siblings and I always took that statement with a pinch of salt, and we had a real giggle the day he got a phone call from an old classmate asking for Tan Giok Sin (his entire family officially changed their Chinese names to Indonesian names in the 1960’s to promote “assimilation”).
This year, I’ve been thinking about this holiday in a new way since our baby is due on February 16th, two days after the Spring Festival (another name for the new year as it also marks the transition of winter into spring) on the 14th. I expounded on my reflections in an essay to be published on Leite’s Culinaria on this date so I won’t repeat them here but I did try out a few new year recipes I’ve been craving, one of them being nian gao (literally “year cake” or as a homonym, “higher year”) made with Chinese brown candy/sugar and glutinous rice flour.
When I was growing up, my dad would come home with a gift basket of goodies from the office during Chinese New Year and nian gao was inevitably one of the items nestled among the luxury dried goods (mushrooms, scallops, oysters and other expensive unidentifiables), candies, sweetmeats and mandarins. Legend has it that nian gao was offered to the Kitchen God either as a bribe or so that his lips would be busy chewing on the sticky cake that he wouldn’t report unfavorably on your family to the Jade Emperor in heaven. An unfavorable report meant bad luck for the household for an entire year and you didn’t want that!
I didn’t really like nian gao then—the circular cake was usually wrapped in lotus leaves which to my childhood nose had an odd musky smell, I hated how the brown sticky bits got stuck in my teeth, and besides the cake was far from sweet enough.
Funny how tastes change. I now love its mellow sweetness, and each slice coated with a light, crisp egg batter and a heat-softened sticky interior offers my mouth bites akin to delicate pillows of edible goodness.
New Year Cake (Nian Gao)
Adapted from The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen (Simon & Schuster Editions, 1999) by Grace Young
The main ingredient, glutinous rice flour, is a symbol of cohesiveness; be sure you don’t use regular rice flour. Brown candy (peen tong in Cantonese) is a Chinese sugar sold in slabs about 5 x 1-1/4 x 1/2 inches. You can find them in 1 pound packages or sometimes sold loose in bins at Chinese herbal shops or Asian markets. Use soft golden brown sugar if you can’t find it. In Indonesia, nian gao is called kue keranjang (basket cake) or kue cina (Chinese cake) and are sold widely during Imlek, the Indonesian name for Chinese New Year. Instead of being dipped in egg and fried, the slices can be grilled and rolled in shredded coconut.
Time: 1 hour 30 minutes (30 minutes active) plus sitting overnight
Makes: 1 (6-inch) cake
3 slabs brown candy (peen tong), about 6 ounces
2 teaspoons vegetable oil, plus more for pan-frying
3 1/2 cups (16 ounces) glutinous rice flour
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
1 egg, beaten until frothy
Chop the brown candy into small pieces and place in a heatproof bowl. Pour 1 cup of boiling water over the sugar and set aside until it dissolves into syrup.
Grease a 6-inch, round, straight-sided baking dish with 1 teaspoon oil (or use cooking spray).
In a large bowl, place the flour and make a well in the middle. Stir in the cooled syrup and knead into a dough, adding about 1/4 to 1/3 cup more cold water. Knead for about 5 to 10 minutes until the dough is smooth, slightly moist and shiny.
Turn the dough out into the dish and pat down until it fills the dish evenly.
Sprinkle the sesame seeds on top and pour 1 teaspoon oil over, using your fingers to lightly press down on the seeds.
Steam the cake for 35 to 40 minutes over high heat until the cake starts to pull away from the sides of the dish. (Click here for steaming tips).
Carefully remove the dish from the steamer and place on a rack to cool. Cover loosely and let cool at room temperature until the next day.
Run a knife along the edges of the cake to loosen it and invert onto a plate. Flip the cake right-side up onto a cutting board and cut into quarters. Cut each quarter crosswise, not into wedges but into 2-inch wide strips and cut each strip crosswise into scant 1/4-inch-thick slices.
When ready to serve, coat a frying pan with oil and heat over medium until hot. Dip each slice into the egg and pan-fry in batches, cooking each side until golden-brown, about 2 to 3 minutes. Serve immediately.
Nian gao is usually served over the course of the 15 days of the new year celebrations when family and friends come to visit. You can wrap it up in plastic and refrigerate for this time, if it lasts that long!
As grandma always says, please share!