Thursday, February 18, 2010

Upping the Year with Year Cake

Unlike the regular new year, the Chinese Lunar New Year celebration lasts for about two weeks. Chances are if you hop on SEPTA and go down to Chinatown this weekend, you're still in time to catch some of the festivities.

As the post below highlighted the importance of eating dumplings during the new year, another important food is the year cake or 年糕 (pronounced "nian gao"). Nian gao is more often consumed by southerners in China, whereas dumplings are more commonly consumed by northerners during the new year. Nian gao is a sweet, chewy (similar to Japanese mochi) dessert made of glutinous rice, usually dark yellow or light brown served in thick slices and sometimes pan-fried for a crispy outer texture. (My sister made the dark yellow pan-fried kind in the picture). Some serve it with red bean paste.

Nian gao has significant symbolic meaning to the Chinese. Nian gao is also a homonym for nian gao, meaning "year" and "high" (年高). Nian gao (年高) is strongly related to promotions and improvements often associated with the new year. Working people hope for raises and promotions; students hope to do better in school; and shopkeepers hope for more business to make more money. Nian gao also sounds like a sticky cake 黏糕, so we eat the year cake nian gao (年糕 ) for prosperity and good fortune for the new year.

The original recipe found here calls for steaming, which is the traditional method, but baking works as well.
1 lb. glutinous rice flour (note: this is not the same as "rice flour")
2 cups water
3/4 c. brown sugar (more or less depending on your preference)
1/4 c. vegetable oil
Optional mixings: sesame seeds, red beans, Chinese dates, nuts

Melt the brown sugar in the water over low heat. Cool the syrup for about 15 minutes. Add the glutinous rice flour and vegetable oil. Mix well and get rid of the lumps. Note that this is a very thick batter.

Grease and flour a baking pan or line with parchment paper to prevent sticking. Bake at 350 degrees until a toothpick stuck in the middle comes out clean. Timing will depend on the size/depth of the pan used.

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