The Chinese character 糕 gao can be used on its own or in combination with other characters to mean, more or less, “fairly solid food somewhat like a cake but not always what would be considered a cake from a Western perspective”. Examples include 蛋糕 dan gao, lit. “egg cake”, which refers to (for lack of a better term) normal cakes, and 雪糕 (xue gao in Mandarin, but it’s primarily a Cantonese term; lit. “snow cake”), which means “ice cream”.
So 年糕 nian gao, lit. “year cake”, is a difficult food to explain, not least because there are several different types that can be served several different ways, like non-glutinous Shanghainese 年糕 nian gao that can be stir-fried with meat and vegetables for a savory dish or sprinkled with granulated sugar for dessert. I prefer Cantonese 年糕 nian gao though – it can be served as a super-sticky pudding or cut into slices, dipped in egg and pan-fried. The way I ended up getting people to eat it without being able to do a great translation was, “It’s, like, a glutinous rice cake? Well, not really a cake, but – here, just try it.”
And then the 年糕 nian gao did its own talking.
Anyway, let’s start from the very beginning (a very good place to start). Why did I have Cantonese 年糕 nian gao on hand, anyway? Well, I decided that since it was Chinese New Year, it was a good time to undertake an overly ambitious dorm cooking project. (I have been cooking a little since I got to college, but nothing I haven’t made before.) I did the majority of the prep work in my room – my roommate’s hot water pot was a great help.
I ordered two bags of glutinous rice flour from Amazon (which has become my new supermarket – the only real supermarkets nearby are either too far away to walk with heavy bags of groceries or extraordinarily overpriced), mixed it with some flour (whole wheat, which made it a little weird, but still okay), sugar, coconut milk and hot water, and got this…
I have to admit, the fact that the batter was a watery mess freaked me out. Where was the super-sticky glutinous texture I was looking for? Not sure what to do, I pressed on anyway and proceeded to move up to the kitchen and steam the whole liquidy mix in my handy-dandy As Seen on TV steaming/vegetable washing/pasta cooking/straining basket.
And all was well. I ended up with a nice solid block of 年糕 nian gao that I could slice and fry and share.
Brown Sugar Coconut Nian Gao / 紅糖椰汁年糕 hong tang ye zhi nian gao (adapted for dorm laziness/scarcity of supplies from Christine’s Recipes)
Like I said above, using whole wheat flour instead of white flour makes the texture a little strange.
As for steaming, use some kind of structure to raise your steaming vessel above the water (I used a glass bowl on a steaming basket; you can also use a bowl or bamboo steamer on some kind of support with legs…the possibilities are endless as long as the bottom of the vessel doesn’t touch the water).
Serves 4, maybe
- 1 cup water, freshly boiled
- 2 cups brown sugar
- 1/3 cup coconut milk
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus a little extra for greasing steaming vessel
- 2 cups glutinous rice flour
- 3/4 cup all-purpose flour (see note)
- 1 egg, beaten
Fully dissolve the sugar in the hot water. Mix in the coconut milk and oil and let cool.
Meanwhile, mix the flours together. If you have a sieve, sift them together, then sift them into the wet ingredients bit by bit. Otherwise, just stir well as you add the flours slowly into the batter. (The batter may be a little lumpy if you do this – that didn’t cause me any problems with the final product, but if it worries you, I encourage you to find a sieve.)
Bring a pot or wok full of water to a boil. Grease a steaming vessel (see note) and steam on high heat with a lid on the pot or wok for an hour to an hour and a half. Cut all the way through to the middle to see if the 年糕 nian gao is done – if the texture is consistent all the way through, with no raw bits, it’s done. (It will be really sticky, so the traditional toothpick method doesn’t apply here.)
Let cool, then refrigerate for at least 3 hours. Turn out onto a greased surface and slice into half-inch thick pieces.
Heat a well-greased skillet on a medium flame. Dip the pieces of 年糕 nian gao in egg and fry them until both sides are brown and the 年糕 nian gao is soft all the way through. Serve piping hot.
(P.S.: I have a secret. This post has been antedated because I’m a terrible person who doesn’t want to admit that she made these ages and ages ago and was too lazy to post about it until six weeks later. I actually made them on January 22.)