Nian Gao: Chinese New Year Cake in the Year of the Dragon
I’ll confess that as a kid, I was petrified of the dragon in the dragon dance. It wasn’t so much the ginormous eyes and teeth of the dragon that was scary, it was the loud, thunderous beat of that drum. I would be able to hear it from blocks away in Chinatown, my dad was literally be forced to take me by the hand and duck into alleys, side streets and random shops just so I wouldn’t get too frightened. I always think about that when I hear that familiar drumbeat of the dragon dance every year.
One thing that I always look forward to during Chinese New Year is nian gao, the sticky, sweet and scrumptious Chinese New Year cake that’s only available once a year. Usually, we buy Chinese New Year cakes from New Town Bakery, they sell a lot of classic, old school Chinese favourites like traditional steamed custard buns, deep fried donuts covered in sugar and the most delicious, chewy, sticky and sweet Chinese New Year cake you’ve ever had. But we decided to do something a bit different this year and bought some cakes from De Fresh Bakery which is a popular bakery amongst Westerners.
Chinese New Year cake is made out of glutinous rice flour and brown sugar, ground into a paste and steamed. The cake can be eaten just like that, as finger food, it’s sweet and chewy. But another traditional way to prepare Chinese New Year cake is to pan fry it with egg.
Sometimes it’s a challenge to dig the sticky Chinese New Year cake out of its tin pie plate, I use a paring knife. The little shreds of cake that peel off in the process always make good nibbles.
After the cake is out of its container, I cut it into thick strips, then slice those strips into squares, at least a quarter of an inch or thicker.
Next, I beat an egg and dip each square of nian gao into the egg batter. I usually pour a little bit of oil into the frying pan, not for the nian gao but just so the egg doesn’t stick. The nian gao is oily enough that it actually doesn’t really stick to the fying pan.
Lining up the little egg soaked pieces of nian gao in the frying pan, the heat should be turned up to medium at this point. The sizzle of sweet cake and egg in the pan is the tastiest sound in the world. The little bits of cake begin heating up and melting right away. They’re ready to flip when they turn golden brown. I always have beaten egg leftover at the end, and I just pour it all into the pan.
The egg is delicious when it soaks up the sweet brown sugar flavours of the cake.
It only takes about 10 minutes or less for the nian gao to be ready. I like the nian gao semi-firm, still retaining their shapes but of course the longer you heat the little cakes, the softer and more mushy and stretchy they get.
The reason why I cut my nian gao so thick is just because I want each piece to retain its shape and be slightly firm around the corners but soft and gooey in the middle. I love that thin layer of fried egg crust lining each piece and the first piping hot bite when the stretchy, sugary melted cake sticks to the ends of my chopsticks and the roof of my mouth.
The nian gao from De Fresh Bakery doesn’t taste as sweet as the ones from New Town. I actually think I’ll go to New Town to pick up a few of their cakes after the New Year.
The other cakes that we bought from De Fresh Bakery are also available all year around but can also be eaten during Chinese New Year: steamed radish rice cake and steamed taro root cake.
These cakes are also made out of a type of paste and cornstarch and can be eaten straight out of the box or pan fried. These cakes are savory as opposed to the sweet sticky nian gao. All three cakes symbolize family unity in their round shape. The sweet nian gao is a signifier for a sweet and happy new year.
Readers of this blog are familiar with my adversity to fresh taro bubble tea but I happen to love steamed taro root cake. Especially the taro root cake from De Fresh Bakery with big squares of taro found throughout the cake. Other spices and dried shrimp are steamed right into the cake adding more flavour and texture. These cakes can be cut up the same way as the nian gao. I try to slice them up thicker than the nian gao though since they’re softer and more easily breakable in the frying pan. It’s not necessary to coat these cakes with egg. They have enough flavour on their own.
The steamed radish rice cake is more pale in colour but is just as tasty as the taro root cake. Also loaded with lots of other yummy ingredients such as dried shrimp, spices, bits of Chinese sausage and little squares of radish, it was hard not to nibble as I was cutting up this cake.
Since the radish rice cake was more pale in colour, it browned up nicer in the fying pan, forming a tasty, thin golden crust on each slice.
My all-time favourite Chinese New Year dish is still and has always been fried nian gao though. Nothing quite compares to the deep sweet flavour and the sticky, gooey texture.
Happy Chinese New Year! May the year of the dragon bring luck, love and good fortune!