Happy Prosperous Lunar New Year 2016! 猴年大吉! (Happy Lucky Monkey Year!)
As a kid, I’ve always been told to eat more Nian Gao before and during the lunar new year. Here’s a secret: the Chinese loves puns when it comes to foods being auspicious. Here is a saying that you might often hear, “多吃年糕！年年长高！步步高升！” (Translation: Eat more Nian Gao, so that you can grow taller/wiser or advance in your career.) The word for “tall” and “cake” (gao) aurally sound the same, when pronounced.
There is also a superstition or tradition why Nian Gao is served as an altar offering — since it is a sticky rice cake, it is sticky & sweet enough to seal the lips of watchful guardian angels, so that only good deeds are reported. Cheeky, eh?
I love my mother’s homemade Nian Gao. It is very rustic and brings many good childhood memories. I haven’t been back to Brunei to celebrate the Lunar New Year in over 15 years. As my husband & I are expecting a Golden Monkey baby in 2016, I’m seizing every moment to learn as much as I could, from my mother, so that I can continue to honour as many traditions as I can.
Easy to make & you can do other things while waiting for it to cook.
This dessert requires a lot of patience to make, if you do not have a pressure cooker — steaming on a stove top, on low heat, can take up to 6 hours. My mom uses a pressure cooker and it takes her 1.5 hours. You will also need to factor in 1 hour of idle time for the gluten dough to rest. So, do plan ahead for idle time if necessary. The most important step is the first two steps of the recipe, as written below. Do not burn the sugar as burnt sugar will produce a bitter-tasting glutinous rice cake.
Nian Gao as a family tradition:
In the olden days, as my mom reminisces about her father making Nian Gao as a child, my late grandpa would say to my then-inquisitive mother, “SHHH! Be quiet. Go away.” Back then, this glutinous rice dessert would take the entire day of sitting by the fire, making sure that there was enough firewood; there was also genuine concern (or superstition) that the dessert won’t be successful if my grandpa was watched.
There is so many things you can do with Nian Gao after it’s steamed. My favourite? Pan-fry it with eggs. So easy and delicious for a lucky breakfast snack.
Note: Precautions are required if you are steaming using a pressure cooker. Read your manufacturer’s manual — it will likely tell you not to use stoneware/glassware inside the pressure cooker; stainless steel should be fine. If you are planning to steam it, you can use any round cylindrical stainless steel or stoneware/glassware containers.
I have adapted my mom’s recipe for steaming on a stove-top. You can easily use any big pot, if you can find a stainless steel steaming rack. Sunflower oil was used — any vegetable cooking oil will do.