Saturday, January 21, 2012

Dear Kitchen God

Dear Kitchen God,

Before you return to The Jade Emperor to tell him of our family's activities for the past year, I would like to offer you your annual treat before Chinese New Year.  Your nian-gao this year has a brand new look, yet still every bit as tasty, sweet, and chewy as it always has been.

The legend of nian-gao -- a glutinous rice steamed cake -- originates as an offering to the Kitchen God (who protects the hearth of families) during Chinese New Year.  The stickiness of the cake is meant to keep his mouth stuck shut, so that he cannot report bad things about one's family to the Jade Emperor, who then rewards or punishes a family based on that information.  Why the Chinese culture created legends with such negative associations is beyond me.  But legend or not, and most importantly, I get to buy and enjoy yummy nian-gao at this time of year.  And now that I have discovered an alternate way of making it, I will never have to wait for Chinese New Year to eat it anymore. 

After I posted a few innovative ways to use a mini muffin pan, a friend shared a Chinese sweet rice cake recipe with me, one that also uses a mini muffin pan.  It was made of rice flour and wheat starch, steamed, not baked.  I had never had this before, and it was very yummy, but it made me think of a new way to make nian-gao, one of my favorite Chinese sweets, with glutinous rice flour.  I had to search around for mini muffin pans that would fit into my steamer, and I did finally find some at Sur la Table, but small ramekins of comparable size would do just as well.

I've always known how to make nian-gao, since I have had a good, basic recipe from a well-known cookbook.  But I never attempted it because it takes at least 2 hours to steam (in square or round cake pans).  It's such a long process: steam forever, let cool or refrigerate, cut into square slices, then pan fry with or without an egg wash dip.  But I thought that steaming them in mini muffin pans would cut down on the steaming time and eliminate cutting them altogether.  (Nian-gao is too sticky to cut when it is fresh and soft; it turns hard after a few days, and by then it takes quite a bit of muscles to cut).  Also, condensation from steaming drips onto the top of the nian-gao, resulting in unsightly and uneven color and texture.  But when made with mini muffin pans, a simple flip of the nian-gao upside down, and voila, smooth surfaces of perfection. Furthermore, these small wells ensures that the glutinous rice mixture is steamed thoroughly and evenly, and you can even decide how thin or thick to make each piece.

The recipe is from Chinese Snacks (Revised) by Huang Su-Huei, (a Wei-Chuan Cookbook) but I halved the recipe below.  While some other recipes include extras such as coconut milk or sweet red beans, this is a classic, stripped-down recipe.  Makes approximately 2 dozen mini muffin size pieces.

  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 1/4 cup hot water
  • 3 cups glutinous rice flour
  • mini muffin pans or small ramekins
  • cooking spray
  • steamer (I have a stainless steel two layer steamer)
  1. Grease mini muffin pans with cooking spray (I used Pam Baking Spray).
  2. Dissolve sugar in hot water.  Let cool a bit so it's not scalding hot.
  3. Add glutinous flour and whisk until mixed. 
  4. Spoon mixture into mini muffin pans. 
  5. Steam on high heat for 15 to 20 minutes (depending on how full you fill the wells).  Make sure there is enough water boiling so the pot doesn't burn.
  6. Remove from steamer and let cool a bit.  Use a toothpick to lift each piece of nian-gao and flip upside down onto a plate.  (OR, to pan fry right away: place directly onto pan heated with some vegetable oil to pan fry on medium heat.  Fry both sides until golden brown.)
Nian-gao is eaten fresh and soft, just out of the steamer.  Or, after it hardens, pan frying makes it soft again, and also adds another dimension to its texture.  The heat caramelizes the sugar in the cake, and makes a superior crunch that contrasts the soft, chewy inside.  Some like to dip pieces in an egg wash (just scramble an egg) before pan frying, but it is not necessary.  You now have Golden Medallions of heavenly goodness, so irresistible that it's hard to have just one or two. It is a fine Chinese New Year treat!

So, Kitchen God, since your Chinese New Year offering has had a modernized look, perhaps you'll try to adopt a more contemporary philosophy I've lived by: if you don't have anything nice to say, say nothing.  Enjoy your Golden Medallions, and Happy Chinese New Year!



  1. Oh I love this idea you had. And now I want some... I think I might have to hit a bakery on Monday :) Those look gorgeous. I'm betting you'll have to make another batch because these will all be gone?

  2. My MIL is here for the week, and I'm making another batch tomorrow so we can all have some again!

  3. Thanks for this, Sandra. I will pin this for easy reference.

    When I was reading the recipe, I was reminded of our Filipino rice cake called kutsinta. I bet there is a variation in recipe but, based on what I've seen my sister do (I never cooked when I was a single person), this recipe and kutsinta are close relatives. We eat the latter with fresh grated coconut though. I guess I should not be surprised considering that Chinese is one of our major culinary influences. :-)