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.