With the start of the new year, how does one ensure a year full of highs and sticky sweet success?
The answer is rice cakes.
Unlike Western rice cakes, Asian rice cakes (mochi in Japan, tteok in Korea, and nian gao in China) are made with glutinous rice flour and have a soft, chewy, sticky texture. In China, the name nian gao (nin gou in Cantonese) takes this feature to a whole new level, with a literal double meaning of either sticky cake or year high. Because of this, nian gao is a traditional celebratory food eaten during Lunar New Year, suggesting a year of high success.
The beauty of nian gao is that it is eaten in a variety of different ways depending on geographical regions in China. In Shanghai, it is stir-fried with pork, mushrooms, and vegetables in a savoury dish. In southern China and Hong Kong, it is steamed with brown sugar and then pan-fried in an egg coating, resulting in a delicious dessert or breakfast food with a crispy outside to contrast the familiar soft inside. In northern China, it is steamed plain or with red or green beans, and eaten as a not-too-sweet dessert or comfort food. Nian gao is so versatile that you can prepare it to suit your tastes, whether it be sweet or savoury, tangy or spicy; and use it to complete your meal as a side, main, or dessert.
You can make nian gao yourself by using glutinous rice flour found in Asian supermarkets. Mix the flour with coconut milk to create a batter and then cook in a steamer for around 3 hours until the top is firm. You can add various fillings and mix-ins if serving it in large pieces, or make it plain and then cut into thin slices to create a pasta-like starch for stir-fry dishes or soups.
However, especially during the Lunar New Year season, pre-made nian gao can be readily found in Asian supermarkets. It may come in several variations, so be sure to choose the type best suited for your desired preparation method.
Even though nian gao is celebrated as being the go-to food for Lunar New Year, its uniquely satisfying texture and versatility in the kitchen gives it high potential as a staple all year-round.