Celebrating Lunar New Year with Foods From Different Cultures

Every year, Lunar New Year is celebrated around the globe with great fanfare: lion dances, red packets stuffed with money, and of course, 10-course banquets comprising dishes made with exquisite ingredients and brimming with symbolism–foods that are homonyms or look-alikes for gold bars, prosperity, family unity, fertility, good fortune, etc. This year, Lunar New Year falls on January 31st–it’s the year of the Horse!– and families will gather from far and wide over the next two weeks to eat dishes from long-life noodles to whole fish and fried egg rolls.

In pockets of Asian communities, this important holiday is also feted with special foods, albeit  lesser known and a little lower-key. Here’s a delicious assortment for you to choose from.

Singaporean

yu sheng ingredients 2
My take on yu sheng using homemade tea-cured salmon

In Singapore where I grew up, my family and I would celebrate with raw fish salad, or yu sheng in Mandarin Chinese. This “salad” is usually eaten in restaurants, not at home.

The dish’s make-up varies from place to place and comprises an assortment of ingredients including: sliced raw fish (salmon, ikan parang [mackerel], or grass carp), carrots, daikon, sweet potato, jellyfish, candied fruit, pomelo, pickled ginger, pok chui (fried flour crisps), etc., etc., all dressed with a sweet and sour plum sauce and spices. Like many dishes served during the New Year, yu sheng is popular because of its name (a homonym for the words for prosperity and longevity) and the “lucky” ingredients that go into it. The ingredients are served neatly laid out on a platter and then pandemonium breaks out as diners start tossing with their chopsticks, and crying out auspicious sayings. Supposedly, the higher you toss, the more luck you’ll have for the New Year!

While yu sheng is traditionally eaten on the seventh day of the New Year (the celebration lasts 15 days, the length of a moon cycle), restaurants tend to have it on their menus starting a week before the New Year, up till several weeks after.

Vietnamese

Photo credit: Ben Nguyen, b00ng/Flickr
Neatly bundled bánh chưng (Photo credit: Ben Nguyen/Flickr)

Tacoma, Washington-native Mary Huynh’s parents gift her with many pounds of “bánh chưng,” glutinous rice bundles stuffed with mung beans and pork wrapped in banana leaves, every Tết, the Vietnamese New Year. The bundles are boiled anywhere from six to 12 hours. It’s basically “cooked to death!” but for good reason–it gives bánh chưng a long shelf life.  “(It’s) delicious!” Huynh describes. “I’d lug it as checked baggage when I visit, and there have been mailings to my sister.”

Sweets like dried fruit candies and coconut candy are also abundant during Tết. Huong C. Nguyen has vivid memories of dried candied fruit offered on huge plates for visitors. “We served them with tea before sitting down to eat meals,” recalls Nguyen who grew up in Denville, New Jersey.

On the dining table, an assortment of traditional Vietnamese dishes like lemongrass chicken, braised duck, and thit kho, pork belly and eggs braised in fish sauce and coconut juice would be laid out. “Sometimes my mom would even mix in turkey!” she laughs.

Taiwanese

Red bean soup with rice flour dumplings (Photo credit: Grace Hwang Lynch, HapaMama.com)

The daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, Grace Hwang Lynch celebrates Lunar New Year enjoying hot pot with her family. Lynch, who blogs at HapaMama.com, describes the visually stunning array of foods: “There’d be a variety of meats–beef, chicken, sometimes lamb or pork. Seafood like shrimp, scallops, fish and shrimp balls, different veggies, leafy greens, mushrooms. The final item would be bean thread noodles to soak up the flavorful broth.”

On the 15th day of the Lunar New Year, the Lantern Festival, Lynch says it’s customary to have sweet red bean soup (ang-tau-thng in Taiwanese) with dumplings (in-a). “The dumplings are made with sweet (glutinous) rice and are really small, about marble-size, and come in pink and white.” The round dumplings and the bowls the sweet soup is served in symbolize family togetherness.

Indonesian

kue nastar ready
Homemade pineapple tarts or kue nastar

Although she didn’t celebrate Lunar New Year in a big way in Indonesia, Yusi Sasmitra fondly remembers kue keranjang, also called kue cina (literally Chinese cakes), that were sold widely during Imlek (the Indonesian name for Lunar New Year). They’re similar to Chinese nian gao (sticky rice cake) but with a Southeast Asian twist. “The brown cakes are cut into slices, grilled and rolled in shredded coconut,” the real estate specialist explains.

Sasmitra’s eyes light up when she rattles off the wide selection of cookies made available to guests who come round to visit after the first day of the New Year: kue bangkit (made from sago flour), kue satu (made from mung bean powder), cheese sticks and her favorite, kue nastar (pineapple tarts).

Korean

dduk_mandoo_guk
Dduk mandoo guk topped with seaweed (Photo credit: Amy Kim, kimchimom.com)

Growing up, kimchimom.com blogger Amy Kim vaguely remembers having dduk mandoo guk (rice cakes and dumpling soup) on January 1st. According to Korean custom, this dish is served during the Korean New Year, called Solnal or Seollal, that follows the lunar calendar. But in an effort to assimilate to American culture when they migrated to the U.S. in the 1960’s, Kim’s parents stopped celebrating the holiday. Kim only learned about it through friends, Korean language classes, and stories her mom told her.

“Now that I have a family of my own, I decided to start this tradition several years ago. Better late than never!” she says.

A typical bowl of dduk mandoo guk comprises ground beef and cellophane noodle dumplings served in beef broth. Kim, who lives in Northern New Jersey, created her own version made with Japanese dashi and shrimp dumplings. She buys the rice cakes from the Asian store.

A lot of symbolism is present in this simple bowl of soup. The New Year is considered everyone’s birthday and eating the soup symbolizes becoming one year older. The white rice cakes symbolize blessings and purity, and when cut into perfect rounds or “coins,” represent money and prosperity.

Japanese

ehomaki smithsonian
Eho maki (Photo credit: Elizabeth Andoh, TasteofCulture.com)

While Lunar New Year is not a major festival in Japan, many Japanese celebrate Setsubun, a seasonal marker on the ancient, lunar-based koyomi calendar. This year, February 3rd marks the beginning of spring as well as the lunar new year.

In recent years, eating eho maki-zushi–Good Fortune Setsubun rolled sushi–has become part of the Setsubun fun (in addition to the bean-throwing ceremony!). These sushi rolls are similar to the futo (plump) maki (rolls) available at American Japanese restaurants. “The biggest difference is that these Good Fortune Rolls are not sliced,” explains Tokyo-based Japanese culinary instructor Elizabeth Andoh. “Some people include seven fillings (to represent Shichi Fukujin, the Seven Gods of Good fortune), others just four or five. A few takeout places in Tokyo this year are offering very plump rolls with 15 fillings!”

The proper way to eat eho maki is to face the eho, the auspicious direction for the year, and gobble down your sushi roll uncut to keep the good fortune intact.

~~~

HAPPY YEAR OF THE HORSE 2014 EVERYONE!

~~~

LINKS TO RECIPES:

Yu Sheng

Red Bean Soup with Rice Flour Dumplings (HapaMama.com)

Bánh chưng (Gastronomy Blog)

Pineapple Tarts

Dduk Mandoo Guk (Kimchimom.com)

Eho Maki-Zushi (+ more about Setsubun!)

Advertisements

Indonesian-Style Pineapple Tarts for Chinese New Year!

The snake may not be my favorite animal but I just learned a very interesting factoid about the Year of the Snake which starts this Sunday, February 10, 2013. Just as a snake sheds its skin, this is a good year for making dramatic transformations, whether it’s changing jobs, pursuing a lifelong dream, or discarding destructive relationships and negative influences in our lives.

Now, I actually have a new appreciation for this slithery reptile.

I don’t have any earth shattering changes in my life to share (although I did promise myself that this is the year I find direction for my writing), however, I will tell you about my favorite new year treat—pineapple tarts!

Pineapple tarts!!
Singapore-style pineapple tarts (Photo credit: chernwei)

Pineapple tarts and cookies are popular in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia. And even Taiwan lays claim to a similar pineapple cake. They come in different shapes and sizes, flower shapes being favored in Singapore and Malaysia, whereas simple golf ball-shaped cookies are preferred in Indonesia.Taiwanese cakes, on the other hand, are square or rectangular. Unfortunately, these Asian-style pineapple tarts are not quite de rigueur in the U.S. but that might change!

pineapple cakes . 01
Taiwanese pineapple cakes (Photo credit: 7_70)

Like all other popular new year foods, there’s a reason why pineapple tarts are served in most Chinese households (in the above regions) during the “visiting” season, the first 15 days of the new year when it’s customary to visit family and friends.

The Mandarin word for pineapple is feng li (鳳梨) which means “phoenix pear,” or more commonly, huang li (黃梨), wong lai in Cantonese and ong lai in Hokkien (also Fukien). This means “yellow pear” and phonetically sounds like “good luck comes.” So eating this sweet cookie will bring good luck as well as sweetness in the upcoming year.

Pineapple
There’s a reason (or two) why pineapples are considered auspicious (Photo credit: Wolfharu)

Since moving to the U.S., I haven’t  indulged in pineapple tarts too often. But a few weeks ago, my mum offered me some kue nastar (the Indonesian name for them) her friend Linda had made. Oh … my!  Tante (Indonesian for auntie) Linda’s kue nastar are seriously the best I’ve tasted in a really long time—each cookie is a ball of soft, crumbly pastry encasing a golden orb of pineapple jam that achieves its mellow sweetness from good quality pineapples slow-cooked with just enough sugar.

I asked  my mum if Tante Linda would teach me how to make them. Mum made a quick phone call to her and I had an appointment in her kitchen the next week!

Tante Linda is from Jambi (it’s both the name of the province and town) on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. She’s proud to say that Jambi pineapples are the sweetest and most flavorful she’s ever tasted. Tante Linda loves her hometown pineapples so much that every time she goes home, she asks her sister to make and pack containers-full of pineapple filling for her to bring back to the U.S.. Making these pineapple cookies with the Jambi pineapple filling gives her a nostalgic taste of family and home.

ingredients
Dutch butter (brought back from Indonesia) in the red can which Tante Linda calls colloquially”Wijsman” (see ingredient list in the recipe below), is one of the ingredients she had laid out on the counter when I arrived at her home.

I must warn you that Tante Linda didn’t do much measuring when I baked with her, instead relying on her many years of experience and her sense of touch and feel. The recipe below comes from her sister who Tante Linda claims is the better baker.

I’ll be darned if her sister can bake pineapple cookies any lovelier than these!

~~~

Indonesian Pineapple Cookies (Kue Nastar)

kue nastar ready

Tante Linda takes quite a few liberties with this recipe but it’s the recipe she learned from, adding her own flourishes along the way. If you’d like to dress up these little beauties, you can push in a whole clove for a hat (they’ll look like tangerines!), or shower them with shredded cheese.

Makes: about 100 cookies
Time: 1-1/2 hours

500 grams margarine (2 cups, Tante Linda uses Imperial brand)
150 grams salted butter (2/3 cup, Tante Linda swears by H. J. Wijsman & Zonen Preserved Dutch Butter which she says makes the cookies fragrant and tasty, “wangi dan enak” )
4 egg yolks, plus 1 for glazing
100 grams sugar
600 to 700 grams (5 to 6 cups) all-purpose flour (Tante Linda uses Gold Medal brand)
4 to 5 tablepoons powdered milk (Tante Linda uses Dancow, a brand from Indonesia. I’ve also seen recipes with custard powder too)
Pineapple Filling (recipe below)

In a large mixing bowl, combine the butter, sugar and egg yolks. Using a hand mixer, mix on low speed for 5 to 7 minutes, until the mixture turns fluffy and pale yellow.

butter_sugar_eggs

Add the powdered milk and mix by hand for another minute or two until well incorporated.

powdered milk

Add the flour gradually into the mixture and mix with your hands until it forms a sticky pastry dough that’s a little drier than cookie dough but not as dry as bread dough. Tante Linda didn’t weigh the flour but kept adding more until the dough felt “right.” She likes hers soft, “empuk” so she used closer to 600 grams, but if you’d like a crispier pastry, feel free to use more flour (closer to 700 grams).

pouring in the flour

Pinch a piece of dough and roll it into a ball between your palms about the size of a marble (about ½-inch in diameter). Hold the ball in the palm of one hand and use your finger to flatten it into a circular disc 1-1/2 to 2 inches in diameter.

Scoop about ½ teaspoon of pineapple filling (or more!) into the middle of the disc and fold the dough up and around so that the ends meet. Pinch the dough to seal, trying to encase all the filling within. Don’t worry if some filling peeps out. Roll between your palms into an even ball slightly smaller than a golf ball and lay on an ungreased cookie sheet. Repeat until all the dough and filling are finished. You will need two cookie sheets.

waiting to be glazed

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.

Beat the remaining egg yolk in a small bowl and brush the tops of the cookies with a thick layer of yolk. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until shiny and golden, rotating the cookie sheets halfway for even browning.

glazing2

Scrape the cookies loose from the cookie sheet while they’re still warm. Cool on a cooling rack or on the sheets.

scraping cookies

Pineapple Filling

nastar filling

Tante Linda says that Jambi pineapples are very sweet and don’t require much sugar hence this recipe only calls for 3/4 cup sugar. Taste the mixture halfway and add more sugar if you’d like. Making the filling is quite a tedious process but you can make it up to a week ahead and refrigerate it. Or try using a slow cooker. A friend tried this method out with great success. You can confidently leave it alone to simmer (she said it took about 4 hours), checking on it only occasionally. You can also add cinnamon sticks or cloves to spice up the filling.

Time: 4 hours

3 ripe pineapples
150 grams (3/4 cup) sugar

Peel the pineapples and dig out the eyes. Cut into chunks or slices, discarding the core, and grate by hand (better) or use a food processor (you won’t get as much texture but it’s a whole lot easier!).

Combine the pineapple and sugar in a large, wide-mouthed pot and cook over a very low flame, stirring occasionally so it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot, for about 2 to 3 hours. Halfway through cooking, taste the pineapple filling and add more sugar if desired.

The filling is ready when all the liquid has evaporated, the color has transformed from bright yellow to dark ochre-almost brown, and has achieved the consistency of a very dense jam.

Let the filling cool completely before making the pineapple cookies or storing in an airtight container in the refrigerator for later.

~~~

Happy Year of the Snake and Gong Xi Fa Cai!

New Beginnings Part II: A Chinese New Year Dish Called Yu Sheng (鱼生)

yu sheng ingredients 2
Clockwise from top left: carrots, cucumber, wonton chips, pomelo, daikon, and tea-cured salmon in the middle

As I mentioned in New Beginnings Part I, I’m investing all my New Year mojo in yu sheng (Mandarin for “raw fish”), only my version uses tea-cured salmon which is technically still raw.

Also called yee sang (in Cantonese), this “salad” is usually eaten in restaurants in Singapore and Malaysia. The dish’s make-up varies from place to place and comprises an assortment of ingredients including: sliced raw fish (salmon, ikan parang [mackerel], or grass carp), carrots, daikon, sweet potato, jellyfish, candied fruit, pomelo, pickled ginger, pok chui (fried flour crisps), etc., etc., all dressed with a sweet and sour plum sauce and spices.

yu sheng ingredients
I hand cut all my vegetables so they look a little rustic. If you have a mandoline or box shredder, you'll have thinner, cleaner strips.

Like many dishes served during the New Year, yu sheng is popular because of its name (a homonym for the words for prosperity and longevity) and the “lucky” ingredients that go into it. The ingredients are served neatly laid out on a platter and then pandemonium breaks out as diners start tossing with their chopsticks, and crying out auspicious sayings. Supposedly, the higher you toss, the more luck you’ll have for the new year. For more info on the dish read Robyn Eckhardt (of Eating Asia)’s article.

While yu sheng is traditionally eaten on the 7th day of the Chinese New Year (the celebration lasts 15 days, the length of a moon cycle), restaurants tend to have it on their menus starting a week before the New Year, up till several weeks after.

I guess it’s never too late to seek good luck!

Happy Chinese New Year everyone! GONG XI FA CAI! 恭喜发财!

~~~

Lucky (Cured) Fish Salad (Yu Sheng 鱼生)

yu sheng 2

When my parents first moved to the U.S., my mom decided to make her own version of yu sheng. While most of the ingredients are familiar, she did make some deviations. Instead of the traditional ikan parang (mackerel), she used fresh salmon. She pickled carrots and daikon to make them sweet, sour and importantly, crunchy, and skipped the pickled ginger altogether. Plus, she added what might make yu sheng purists cringe, iceberg lettuce, to bulk up the salad. This is my riff on her version using tea-cured salmon which is a nice counter to the sweet and sour flavors that may otherwise overpower this dish, and without the iceberg lettuce.

Time: 30 minutes
Makes: 2 large appetizer servings

3 1/2 oz/100 g Tea Cured Salmon (1/2 cup)
3 medium carrots, peeled and shredded (1 1/2 cup)
1/2 small daikon radish (1/4 pound), peeled and shredded (1 cup)
1 large cucumber, peeled and shredded (1 1/2 cups)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup /2 oz pickled ginger (the sushi kind), shredded
1/2 cup pomelo sacs (from about 5 wedges)

Dressing:
3 tablespoons plum sauce or duck sauce (Sun Luck and Dynasty are 2 brands you can find at regular supermarkets)
2 teaspoons lime juice (1/2 large lime)
1 teaspoon sesame oil
Salt to taste

Garnish:
1 cup Wonton Chips (see below)
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
2 tablespoons crushed roasted peanuts
1/2 teaspoon Chinese 5-spice powder

In separate bowls, soak the carrots and daikon in cold water for 30 minutes. Place the cucumber in a colander and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt, and let drain over the sink for 30 minutes. Squeeze out as much water as possible from the carrots and daikon. Rinse the cucumber first and do the same. Set the vegetables aside.

To make the dressing, mix the plum sauce, lime juice, and sesame oil in a small bowl. Add 1 tablespoon of hot water (or more) and mix until you like the consistency. Add salt to taste.

To serve, pile each vegetable and the wonton chips around a round platter (roundness symbolises fullness) with the fish in the middle. Scatter the sesame seeds, peanuts, and 5-spice powder on top. Pour the dressing over the salad.

Stand up and Lo Hei (Cantonese for tossing luck)! Toss the ingredients into the air with chopsticks while saying auspicious wishes.

For a complete list of all the auspicious sayings associated with each step and each ingredient, go here.

Wonton Chips

To make the wonton chips, I cut wonton skins into 12 (about 1-by-½-nch) rectangles and deep fried them until golden. Once the oil is ready, the chips take seconds to cook so don’t dilly-dally, they burn quickly. One cup is equivalent to about 48 chips or 4 wonton skins.

Before:After

~~~

Other Chinese/Lunar New Year dishes you might enjoy:

Chinese New Year Cake
Pumpkin Cake
Cantonese Cake
Longlife Noodles
Teochew Duck

New Beginnings Part I: A New Blog and Tea-Cured Salmon

Picture of a dragon
Enter the dragon (Image via Wikipedia)

Chinese New Year is a celebration of new beginnings and many Chinese take the saying “out with the old, in with the new” very seriously.

This year, the Year of the Dragon, is drumming up a little more hoo-ha–and will welcome quite a few more babies–than usual. In ancient China, the dragon was a symbol of the emperor’s authority and power, and is still considered the most auspicious animal in the Chinese zodiac. And its arrival on January 23rd is predicted to bring not only great success, but also unpredictability and drama.

If I was superstitious and followed Chinese custom accordingly, by New Year’s Eve I will have, among other things, done the following:

• Spring-cleaned my home from top to bottom to remove any traces of bad luck from the previous year (BTW, you’re not supposed to sweep during the New Year celebrations lest your good luck gets swept away!),
• Paid all my debts (still trying!),
• Resolved differences with family members, friends, neighbors and business associates (really, do I have to?),
• Bought new outfits in flashy shades of red or orange for my entire family (tempting but my husband would protest).

As you can see, I’m not very diligent about chalking up points for luck and prosperity.

Even though it appears I’m not going to rid myself of previously accumulated bad karma or even revamp my wardrobe, I have decided that it’s time to take a long hard look at my blog. Since my cookbook came out, I’ve felt that this blog in its current format doesn’t accurately reflect me or what I write about. Hence, I am planning to refocus and I’d like your input!

Some questions I’m pondering:

-What do you like/don’t like about my blog?
-What features or elements would you like me to add?
-Would you like to see more Cambodian recipes perhaps, or a glossary?
-Do you prefer traditional recipes or modern adaptations?
-Do you like the ingredient spotlight and homemade recipe departments? What other ongoing departments are you interested in?

But really, any and all suggestions you might have would be greatly appreciated. Please do tell all in the comments section!

That being said, I am not totally averse to having some good fortune in the coming year so I will be making yu sheng (raw fish in Mandarin), a dish popular in Singapore and Malaysia, for our mini New Year dinner.

This “salad” is usually eaten in restaurants and its make-up varies from place to place, but comprises an assortment of ingredients including: sliced fish (salmon, ikan parang (mackerel), or grass carp), carrots, daikon, sweet potato, jellyfish, candied fruit, pomelo, pickled ginger, pok chui (fried flour crisps), etc., all dressed with a sweet and sour plum sauce and spices.

curing mix
Salt, brown sugar, and tea leaves form the basis of my curing mix. You can also add a little sake or Chinese wine to turn it into a paste

When my parents first moved to the U.S., my mom decided to make her own version of yu sheng. While most of the ingredients are familiar, she did deviate a little. Instead of the traditional ikan parang [mackerel], she used fresh salmon. She pickled carrots and daikon to make them sweet, sour and importantly, crunchy, and skipped the pickled ginger altogether. Plus, she added what might make yu sheng purists cringe, iceberg lettuce, to bulk up the salad.

I came up with my own riff on yu sheng by making my own tea-cured salmon which is a nice counter to the sweet and sour flavors that may otherwise overpower this dish, and without the iceberg lettuce.

The tea-cured salmon method is below and the full yu sheng recipe is coming up in New Beginnings II.

In the meantime, I’d love your feedback for my new blog!

~~~

Tea-Cured Salmon

IMG_2002

I tweaked this recipe from Chef Arpad Lengyel of Washington D.C.’s Teaism restaurant. I used a heady Ceylon tea my friend had brought back from Sri Lanka and the salmon absorbed the tea’s lovely earthy, smoky flavor. So while you can choose any tea you’d like, do think about how its fragrance and flavor will infuse the salmon. The Ceylon tea I used was almost like a fine dust, but in hindsight a whole leaf tea would’ve been much easier to wash off.

Time: 10 minutes, plus curing time

1 pound fresh skin-on wild salmon fillet, scaled, pin bones removed
1/2 cup salt
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup loose leaf Ceylon tea (use whichever tea you prefer: oolong, sencha, jasmine, etc.)

Mix the salt, sugar, and tea in a small bowl.

Find a non-reactive casserole dish or baking pan that will fit the entire length of fish and line it with plastic wrap, leaving several inches hanging off the sides. Lay half the curing mix on the plastic. Pat the salmon dry and lay it skin-side down on the curing mix. Sprinkle the remaining curing mix over the salmon, coating it evenly. Don’t forget the sides. (It looks like a lot of curing but after scouring numerous recipes, it seems necessary!)

Fold the edges of the plastic wrap over the salmon and wrap it tightly, kinda like a present. Weigh the salmon down with something heavy – try a plate, brick, or some canned foods. Refrigerate the salmon for 3 days, draining the liquid that comes out and flipping it once every day (although I was not very diligent). If you can’t wait 3 days, some sources say a minimum of 24 hours would suffice.

IMG_1991

When the salmon is ready, scrape off the curing mix and rinse it thoroughly with cold water. Pat the salmon dry with paper towels and place it skin side-down on a cutting board. With your longest, thinnest, sharpest knife, slice the salmon diagonally off the skin. The sliced salmon will keep for about a week in the refrigerator.

If the salmon is too salty for your taste, rinse it as many times as necessary.

~~~

Other Chinese/Lunar New Year dishes you might enjoy:

Chinese New Year Cake
Pumpkin Cake
Cantonese Cake
Longlife Noodles
Teochew Duck

Chinese New Year Cake

IMG_8073[1]
New year cake and mandarin oranges are two standards eaten during Chinese New Year’s

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

IMG_8086[1]

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.

Pat’s notes:
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!

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine