Chinese New Year and steamed new year cake (nian gao) recipe

Posted on January 12, 2012

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So Christmas and New Year is well and truly over. I hope you had a merry one with your near and dears. But for now, it’s back to reality. A reality that includes struggling to wake up early, miserably trudging back to the daily grind we call work, the disbelief that 2012 has arrived and the realisation that overeating over the holidays has led to ill fitting pants. Surely I cannot be the only one suffering from the early January blues!

For those who miss the holidays as much as me, fret not for Chinese New Year (CNY) is just around the corner. January 23rd this year will ring in the year of the dragon, only a couple of weeks wait for another bout of festivities. The entire month of January and even into the first week of February, greater Melbourne will be bursting with celebrations.  A full list of the street festivals can be found at the Only Melbourne site (http://www.onlymelbourne.com.au/melbourne_details.php?id=5912). I for one will be trying to get to as many of those as I can – hawker food here I come!

To educate those not so familiar with CNY, it’s also known as the Lunar New Year or Spring Festival (as China is in the northern hemisphere obviously), and is celebrated by a number of Eastern and South East Asian countries. It follows the lunar calendar, ie. the one that tracks the movements of the moon as opposed to our conventional calendar that tracks Earth’s orbit around the sun.

CNY is as big a deal to the Chinese as Christmas is to the western world. But it lasts for 2 weeks! Double yay. It’s a time for families and friends to come together and of course, food is a huge deal. The biggest meal is the on the eve of CNY. Think of it as the equivalent to Christmas lunch (or dinner). There is a truckload of food and usually the whole family is invited. There are a bunch of traditions that go with CNY, more than I can be bothered to recount. Some are specific to geographic regions while others are specific to the family. By far the best way to get learn about CNY is to come along to one of the many street festivals and just get lost amongst the crowds.

To get a head start, I’m making new year cake (nian gao in mandarin) now. Nian gao is also a homonym for ‘year high’, and thus considered an auspicious treat to eat during new year. It is eaten throughout CNY, can be given as a gift to family and friends or even as an offering to the gods. Like most Chinese sweets, it is a steamed cake made of glutinous rice (ie. sticky rice) flour, water and brown sugar. It can be eaten as is, or pan fried. I love it both ways. The texture is chewy and slightly sticky with the flavour being subtly sweet. Apparently this sticky cake was used as an offering to the Kitchen God in days gone by. The cake is meant to seal the Kitchen God’s mouth shut so that he cannot curse the family. No wonder nian gao is such a winner; it’s lucky AND it shuts up troublesome gossips!

It’s dead easy to make and well worth the effort just for a bite of it freshly steamed. This is a fairly basic version and arguably the most ‘traditional’. It uses brown sugar in pieces which can be found in most (if not all) Asian groceries. Conventional brown sugar can be substituted and I have seen other recipes using caramalised white sugar as well. Other variants of this base recipe incorporate the use of palm sugar (for depth of flavour) and/or coconut milk (for a touch of creaminess).

Glutinous rice flour is a must for this cake, regardless of variant. Do not confuse this with normal rice flour, this recipe will not work with rice flour. Glutinous rice flour can be found at your local Asian grocer and in Australia is commonly wrapped in a clear plastic bag with green writing (rice flour is the one with the red writing).

RECIPE – Chinese New Year steamed cake (nian gao). This recipe makes about 500mL in total.

Ingredients

  • 400g glutinous rice flour
  • ~250mL sugar syrup (2.5 sticks of brown sugar in pieces dissolved in 250mL water)
  • oil for greasing (use a flavourless oil)

Method

  1. To make the sugar syrup, chop up the brown sugar into small pieces, place it in a saucepan with the water on low to medium heat. Once sugar has completely melted, remove from heat source and allow to cool completely.
  2. Gradually add sugar syrup to the flour until it comes together into a dough. It should take about ~250mL of sugar syrup, you may need more or less.
  3. Knead the dough until smooth.
  4. Grease ramekins/tins or whatever contraption you’re steaming the cake in. I used ceramic rice bowls. This recipe filled 2 bowls of 250mL capacity.
  5. Steam on medium to high heat for 50-60 minutes. Make sure to check water level of your steamer and refill accordingly. When cooked through, the cake will be pulling away from the bowl slightly.
  6. Run a knife along the edges of the bowl to remove cake. Wrap in plastic or wax paper and refrigerate.

When purchased from stores, the cake is usually adorned with an auspicious word like ‘fortune’ or ‘wealth’ in red for good luck. A more simple decoration for homemade cakes is to place a red date in the centre. Or you can be lazy like me, and just leave it plain.

Common serving suggestions

  1. Eat freshly steamed. The cake can be re-steamed from the fridge if you prefer to eat it as is.
  2. Pan fried – Lightly oil a non stick fry pan and fry slices of the cake on low to medium heat until the outer edges are crispy, roughly 4 minutes per side. Usually I’m not a big fan of non stick pans, but in this case it is a godsend. This cake is uber sticky when it gets warm and if using conventional pans, it can require quite a bit of oil. As a helpful tip, this cake is a lot easier to slice when has hardened a bit from refrigeration.
  3. Pan fried with egg – As above, but before frying, dip the slices of cake into a beaten egg.

But by far the best way I’ve had nian gao was in Penang, where they sandwiched a slice of the cake between a slice of taro and sweet potato (orange variety), dipped it in batter and then deep fried it. Apparently this is how the Chinese in Malaysia like to make use of their old and hardened nian gao, and what a genius idea. It was absolutely delicious. I’m sure it’s rather bad for you, but how can you pass up deep fried starch filled with a sweet and gooey centre?!

And on that note dear reader, my hunger is calling and the nian gao is waiting. May you have a prosperous year of the dragon, filled with life’s sweet little pleasures :).

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