I’ve gone Chinese New Year mad on the blog recently – and just to stick to the trend, here’s one last Chinese New Year post for good measure. What can I say? It is a 15 day celebration after all, and there are just so many types of food to cover. So I thought I’d round up my Chinese New Year-ism with a post on ‘cakes’ – one sweet, and one savoury.
Nian gao (also known as “thi kuih” in Hokkien, or Chinese New Year cake) is one of the must have foods of Chinese New Year. The main reason why it is so popular during this period is because “nian gao” is a homonym for “higher year”. As Wikipedia says:
The Chinese word 粘 (nián), meaning “sticky”, is identical in sound to 年, meaning “year”, and the word 糕 (gāo), meaning “cake” is identical in sound to 高, meaning “high”. As such, eating nian gao has the symbolism of raising oneself higher in each coming year.
We Chinese are VERY superstitious you see.
Anyway, back to the nian gao. It is made from a surprisingly small list of ingredients – glutinous rice flour, sugar, water and/or coconut milk. These ingredients are then steamed until they solidify to form your “cake”. The traditional method of making these is a rather long process, and as I do not have the patience to steam something for hours on end, I use a simpler method and only steam my nian gao for about an hour. And you know what, it still tastes pretty damn similar to the more traditionally made ones.
It can be eaten as it is (in all its sticky glory goodness), or be pan fried in an egg batter. We always pan fry it with yam or sweet potato slices at home, but I usually just eat it as it is here in London. Again, this is a testament to my laziness. Do note that it becomes more solid the longer you keep them (and they keep for a good 2 weeks in the fridge), but pan-frying or heating it in the microwave (1 minute on High) restores it to its original deliciousness.
The other “cake” of Chinese New Year is the turnip cake (“luo bo gao” in Mandarin, or “loh pak gou” in Cantonese). Whilst this is primarily a dim sum dish, it is very commonly eaten during Chinese New Year as we believe it symbolizes prosperity and rising fortunes. Told you we are superstitious.
I’d never actually made this before (as opposed to nian gao which I’ve made every year since I discovered how to make it in my 2nd year of med school), but I tried Charmaine’s home made version during our Chinese New Year potluck, and I tell you – I was hooked. Obsessed. Simply because it tasted much better than the ones you get in restaurants. So I made some, and it was absolutely delicious. It’s fairly similar to yam cake, and wasn’t actually too hard to make at all!
Turnip cakes are usually sliced into squares/rectangles, and pan fried prior to serving. The pan frying allows you to achieve a crunchy exterior and a soft gooey interior, which as we all know is a brilliant combination of textures. It can also be eaten as it is, ideally warm.
So yes. Nian gao. Luo bo gao. Angku kuih. Peanut cookies. Pineapple tarts. Tang yuan. Yu sheng. Mandarin oranges. So much food, so little time. But no matter, because you can rest assured I’ll be back next year with MORE on the food of Chinese New Year. Be warned.
Happy Chap Goh Meh (15th day of Chinese New Year), everyone! And to those who will be taking part in the festivities of throwing Mandarin oranges into the sea - have fun!
Nian gao (Chinese New Year cake)
- 200ml water
- 200g Chinese brown sugar (I use Pearl River) – alternatively you can use palm sugar
- 200ml coconut milk
- 250g glutinous rice flour
1. Heat water and Chinese brown sugar in a pot over medium heat, until all the sugar has melted.
2. Add the coconut milk, and stir until the mixture is well combined.
3. Take the pan off the heat, and leave the mixture to cool.
4. Once the mixture has cooled, slowly add the glutinous rice flour to the mixture (I do it in four additions), stirring well between each addition. You should end up with a mixture that has a consistency that is slightly thicker than double cream. If your mixture is too thick, add a little more water to it. If it is too runny, add a little glutinous rice flour.
5. Sieve the mixture – this helps to avoid any lumps that may have formed. Believe me when I say you don’t want to have a lumpy nian gao!
6. Pour the mixture into a container of your choice (either a heatproof bowl or takeaway aluminium containers – I used ramekins lined with banana leaves). Don’t forget to oil your containers well if you intend to serve them without the containers.
7. Steam over high heat for 35-45 minutes, or until the surface of the nian gao is fairly firm to touch. If in doubt, I recommend steaming it for longer (10 minutes each time) rather than risk ending up with a liquid/uncooked mixture.*
* To ensure a smooth surface, you can cover your containers with a teacloth during the steaming process. I did not do this, which is why it’s not as smooth as I would like it to be. Alternatively, you can turn the nian gao out from the container and serve it bottom up, which again will give you a smooth surface.
Radish cake (luo bo gau / loh pak gou)
Despite what its name suggests, radish cakes are made from Chinese white turnips, and not radishes.
- 1kg Chinese white turnips/mooli/daikon (this is approximate, you can use more or less as you wish. I recommend a radish: flour ratio of at least 4:1)
- 2 Chinese sausages (lap cheong)
- 6 Chinese mushrooms
- 2 dried scallops
- 20g dried shrimps (heh bee)
- 3 shallots
- 150g rice flour
- 25g wheat starch
- 2 ½ cups water (including drained turnip water & soaking liquid for Chinese mushrooms and scallops)
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon white pepper
- ½ teaspoon five spice powder
Prepping the ingredients:
1. Grate/shred the Chinese white turnips, either using a box grater or the shredder attachment on your food processor. Leave the turnips in a sieve to drain as much water as possible out of it. Reserve the drained liquid.
2. Soak your Chinese mushrooms and dried scallops in some water. Once they soften (this usually takes at least half an hour), cut them into 1cm pieces. Reserve the soaking liquid.
3. Soak the dried shrimps in some water for approximately 10 minutes. Discard the soaking water.
4. Dice your Chinese sausages into 1cm pieces.
5. Finely dice your shallots.
Making the cake:
6. Measure out 2 ½ cups of water. Start off with the water from the grated turnips, as well as the mushroom/scallop soaking liquid, then add water until you have the whole amount.
7. Mix the water, rice flour and wheat starch together. Stir until there are no lumps in the mixture. I suggest straining it to double check. Set aside.
8. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a pan (over medium high heat), and fry the shallots until they turn fragrant. This usually takes 3-5 minutes.
9. Add the dried shrimps, Chinese sausage and dried shallots to the pan, and fry for a further 2-3 minutes.
10. Add the grated turnips to the pan, and fry for 5 minutes, or until they start to soften slightly.
11. Season with the sugar, salt, pepper and five spice powder, and mix well. You may need to adjust the quantities according to personal taste.
12. Turn the heat to low, and slowly add the water/flour mixture to the pan, stirring consistently. Take care to ensure the flour doesn’t sink to the bottom of the pan and form a ‘crust’ there. Cook the mixture over the low heat for 5-10 minutes, or until it becomes a thick paste.
13. Pour the mixture into a greased bowl/container (I used a 20cm diameter Pyrex bowl, but have also used loaf tins!), and steam over high heat for 45 minutes, or until it is cooked. Its surface should be fairly firm to touch. (Sometimes the surface can be a little gooey from the steam even after steaming for 45 minutes, leading you to think it is uncooked. If this is the case, test by inserting a toothpick (or even chopstick) into the center of the cake. It should come up fairly clean, and you should feel resistance when inserting the toothpick.)
14. Slice the turnip cake into 2cm slices. (This will be easier once it has cooled slightly, as it firms up. I actually like putting in the fridge to cool, as the flavour also develops a little more.) You can choose to eat it as it is, or pan fry it in a lightly oiled pan over medium high heat. I highly recommend serving it with some chilli sauce on the side!