In America homophones are language oddities that spark interest only as intellectual curiosities. But in Chinese culture they play a very large role in everyday and holiday symbols. Perhaps this is because there are so many homophones in the Chinese language. So it is that many food traditions during Chinese New Year are connected to play on homophones. One such food symbol is the Chinese New Year cake known as “nian gao” (年糕) in Mandarin.
To understand the significance of “nian gao” one must first understand the characters involved. The Chinese characters for sticky (黏) and year (年) are both pronounced as “nian.” Hence “nian gao” can refer to “sticky cake” (黏糕) or “New Year cake” (年糕) depending on the character used. Furthermore the characters for cake (糕) and high (高) are both pronounced as “gao.” Now consider the expression of “nian nian gao” (年年高), which literally means “year, year high” and is commonly used to describe “prosperity every year.” You can see why these homophones are irresistible for the Chinese to use “New Year cake” as a symbol for prosperity.
This is how many sticky food items came to be known as New Year cakes. Just like many Chinese dishes, New Year cakes developed regional variations over time. But two main types of sticky cakes are common: plain and sweet. The plain New Year cake is popular around the Yangtze River delta region. It is made into a hard dry cake then sliced into thin pieces like pasta before being stir-fried with meat and vegetables, or made into soup. The sweet variety on the other hand is consumed all over the country. They are generally made with white sugar in the north and brown sugar in the south.
To create the stickiness all New Year cakes are made with glutinous rice flour as the main ingredient. Although sometime regular rice flour is added to reduce the stickiness. I like mine sticky so I usually only use glutinous rice flour. The recipe I want to share with you today is for a sweet New Year cake with brown sugar. I like to use Chinese brown sugar that is like rock sugar. It has a very pleasant slightly caramelized flavor. However, you can always substitute regular brown sugar.
The sweet New Year cake is almost always served fried in a light egg batter, making it slightly crunchy on the outside and very sticky inside. I’d suggest serving it with a cup of good hot Chinese tea to help counteract the stickiness. Happy New Year!
Sweet New Year Cake (甜年糕)
Preparation time: 20 minutes
Slow cooking time: 45 minutes
1 lb. glutinous rice flour (糯米粉)
2 cups water
3/4 lb. Chinese brown sugar (or dark brown sugar)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
Toasted white sesame seeds for garnish
- Melt brown sugar completely in the water over low heat. Put the glutinous rice flour in a medium mixing bowl. Pour the hot syrup onto the flour and partially cook it to form a dough. Add vegetable oil to the dough when it is cool to touch and knead well. The dough will be elastic and can be formed into a cake.
- Line the bottom of a 9-inch cake tin with waxed paper. Grease the paper and the side of the tin liberally with vegetable oil. Put the glutinous rice dough into the cake tin. Steam the cake on a rack over boiling water in a wok or in a metal steamer. Steam for about one hour.
- Remove the cake tin from the wok when the cake is done and sprinkle on some toasted sesame seeds. Cool on a rack till room temperature. Refrigerate the cake for about an hour before trying to unmold. This will make the process easier. When unmolding the cake you may want to grease the entire cake surface with vegetable oil so the cake will not stick to your hands. When cooled keep the cake in the refrigerator.
- This cake is usually covered in egg batter and deep-fried before serving. Slice the cake into about quarter inch thick slices. Make an egg batter by mixing one egg and one teaspoon of cornstarch. Dip the cake slices in the egg batter and fry the cake in a frying pan with about 1/8 inch deep of vegetable oil. Drain the fried cake on paper towel before serving.
Written by: Kian Lam Kho