To the Chinese, nian gao is synonymous with Chinese New Year. It is a sweet glutinous rice cake that is also called tee kueh, need koh, kueh bakul and sweet sticky rice cake.
Literally, nian gao means year-cake. It is a must-have for the annual celebrations and is considered good luck to eat it during the Chinese New Year period, not to mention that it is delicious. The sound of nian gao echoes with the sound of the Mandarin words ‘year higher’ which means rising abundance or higher achievement for the coming year.
With the Year of the Ox just around the corner, we would have seen this sweet delicacy on sale at the shops and malls, which would be decked out in Chinese New Year deco, albeit on a much toned-down affair. It is without doubt that this year’s festivities will be much subdued; as the global pandemic is on everyone’s minds, its economic effects on consumers’ wallets and social distancing SOPs to be strictly adhered to.
Taoists households will make an offering of the nian goa to the Kitchen God deity on the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month, which is a week before the Chinese New Year.
It is believed that the Kitchen God, who watches over the domestic affairs of a family, will ascend to heaven and report on each family member’s behavior throughout the year to the Jade Emperor (the Emperor of Heaven). The Jade Emperor will reward or punish the household accordingly to the reports.
As such, this sweet and sticky offering (or ‘bribe’) to the Kitchen God is made with the hopes that his lips will be ‘sealed’ and that he gives only sweet reportings.
The traditional method of making nian gao is very labourous. The glutinous rice needs to be soaked in advance, and then ground to a paste with the stone grinder. The sweet cake will be steamed over a low flame for 6-12 hours. The longer it is steamed, the darker it becomes as the sugar caramalises, and the longer it can be kept.
But nowadays, we can use the ready glutinous rice flour and modern electrical gadgets such as the pressure cooker or the steamer will cut down the cooking duration. The lovely caramel colour is the result of a long steaming process to caramelise the sugar, but some can take the short cut of using brown sugar or molasses.
Fried nian gao that are sandwiched between a piece of sweet potato and yam is utterly delicious. Or it can be steamed and coated in grated coconut, or as a filling in pastry.
Nian gao is a traditional food that we grew up with and we must take the efforts to keep our traditions alive.
|A beautiful gift pack of nian gao for the Chinese New Year|
(Image credit: anghuat_kembajaya IG)