Happy Chinese New Year
2023….A new year with all its promises to come!
年糕 (Nian Gao,”Year Cake”) – A sweet, gooey rice cake for Chinese New Year
The Chinese language is rife with homonyms, such that this traditional dessert is eaten because it will bring good luck for a prosperous year, literally a 年高, or a “year” (年,nian) that is “high” (高,gao). Nian also sounds like the word sticky (粘), so it can also be referred to as 粘糕 , or sticky cake.
This picture may not appear appetizing, even repulsively alien, but this is my all time favourite Chinese New Year treat that my grandmother would make for that once a year nationwide celebration. I remember my excited anticipation, as I tagged along behind my older aunts and uncles, myself being the youngest at the age of five. We made the two mile pebbly trek to our local mill, where the jovial old man, bent by years of grinding rice flour, poured the precious powdery grain into two small bags for us to carry home. Rice flour was a luxury for us in those days, and would cost a sizable chunk out of my grandfather’s meager army salary. But, it was Chinese New Year, and this family festivity would make all the sacrifices made through the year worthwhile.
My grandmother would soak pure cane sugar in water, mix it with the flour, and transfer the mixture into round tins. I would wait impatiently beside her outdoor hearth, eyes glued to the gurgle of the bamboo steamers congealing the soon to be sticky rice cakes. When the round slabs were done, she left them out to cool overnight. Another child-eternity later, she would slice the solidified “nian gao”, soak them in beaten eggs, and fry them into a gooey consistency. Even now, decades later, I can smell the aromatic caramelized coating, blackened by the Maillard reaction, which intensified the sweetness of the cane sugar. As expected, those cakes didn’t last long on the plate.
It’s an image from many moons ago, from halfway around the globe, in the distant past of my childhood. But, more than a memory, the ritual of eating nian gao has come to represent happy times growing up, surrounded by family, celebrating a new year together. Though my grandparents are long gone, as are some of my aunts, these sticky cakes remind me of our perennial hope of a 年高, “Year High.”
In celebrating this Year of the Rabbit, we feature a recipe for “Sticky Rice Cakes”, fried in egg.