A taste of gold

A sim­ple sweet rice cake be­comes a piece of art when made with in­tegrity and love by two hum­ble pairs of hands.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By JULIE WONG star2@thes­tar.com.my

GOLD cakes or nian gao are cer­e­mo­nial cakes to many – I don’t think I’ve met any­one who ac­tu­ally loves the cake, al­though many do tol­er­ate it.

It’s a sweet, brown and sticky rice cake that doesn’t re­ally have much taste – that’s why the Hokkiens sim­ply call it “tee kuih” or sweet cake. It’s also not much to look at, be­ing round and brown.

But sandwiched be­tween a layer of taro and sweet po­tato, bat­tered and deep fried, it’s a dif­fer­ent story.

One story goes that nian gao owes its ex­is­tence to a tell-tale god re­sid­ing in the kitchen. He would watch the shenani­gans in the house­hold and go up to heaven with his an­nual re­port to tell his boss whether you had been good or bad. Man who had been up to mis­chief de­vised a sneaky way to sway the re­port in his favour. Man asked wife to make a sweet and sticky rice cake and in­vited god to eat it just be­fore he stomped up­stairs ...

Another – more plau­si­ble – story I heard re­cently was that nian gao, which has a long, long shelf life, was a way to pre­serve food. Made of rice and su­gar, it was in­stant fuel for long-ago man and could be car­ried on the go. There would also be no prob­lems with an­i­mals try­ing to get man’s food: When dried, gold cake is hard as rock – or shall we say gold? Rat would risk bro­ken teeth try­ing to eat cake.

Be­ing sweet, al­most in­de­struc­tible and golden, it has all the qual­i­ties of good­will, longevity and aus­pi­cious­ness. So to­day, the cake is on the cer­e­mo­nial ta­ble and given away as a fes­tive gift. It can be pret­tied up with an in­tri­cate red pa­per cutout stuck on top. The cake comes in all shapes and sizes nowa­days – Chi­nese in­got, gold bar, flower and fish shapes. And if some­one hasn’t thought of it yet, it would be ideal as maneki-neko, the Ja­panese lucky beck­on­ing kitty – you can then eat it if it didn’t bring you luck.

There are only two – nice – ways to en­joy the cake: steamed un­til soft and rolled in freshly grated, lightly-salted co­conut, or bat­tered and deep fried. My favourite is to sand­wich it be­tween two slices of taro or sweet po­tato be­fore dip­ping in bat­ter and fried – it’s the only time I lust for this non­de­script Chi­nese cake.

Which brings us to the point of this story: Re­nee and Ah Kiong’s per­fectly made fried gold cakes.

This young cou­ple has stuck to their guns to pro­duce the cake the ar­ti­sanal way, with­out ad­di­tives or colour­ing. The fact that they make it all al­most uni­form in size and shape – and they do this man­u­ally by hand – wins fur­ther re­spect, con­sid­er­ing that they are hawk­ers and not some star-rated restau­rant with a bat­tery of min­ions to help out.

The real test is, of course, in the eat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Bite into one of the fried gold cakes when it is still warm and molten gold lava oozes out. That is a gourmet mo­ment when ev­ery­thing comes to­gether: melt­ing lava, fluffy taro, light and airy crispy bat­ter, with a touch of savoury.

The gold cake is not too sweet and the bat­ter is light with no ap­par­ent greasi­ness. It is as per­fect as this cake can be, in my opin­ion – I have helped my mother make nian gao the tra­di­tional way as a child so I can ap­pre­ci­ate how this is achieved.

Re­nee and Kiong

I first met Re­nee and Ah Kiong when they were op­er­at­ing in the food court next to the Imbi mar­ket. When the food court had to make way for de­vel­op­ment, R&K dis­ap­peared from my life.

And so did kuih bakul goreng – un­til a few years later when I de­cided to try to find them. Surf­ing the food blogs, I found praises for the fried gold cakes at Wing Heng (now Win Heng Seng) and Mei Sin restau­rants in the Imbi area.

I was pleased to find R&K again at Mei Sin in Medan Imbi – they were also the ones sell­ing fried gold cakes at Wing Heng on Jalan Imbi many

years ago. Re­nee Teng, 33, speaks good English and has a cheer­ful dis­po­si­tion even when she looks a bit tired.

Her hus­band, Pon Ah Kiong, is 42 and works qui­etly in the back­ground most of the time, and he doesn’t stop work­ing un­til the stall is closed. He al­ways has a white China-made Good Morn­ing towel around his neck for the sweat.

The busi­ness was started by Kiong’s mother some 30 years ago af­ter her hus­band passed away and she had to find a means of liv­ing.

She learnt to make the fried gold cakes from a lady in Pe­nang – hence the cakes have a “Pe­nang-style” bat­ter coat­ing.

Kiong started by help­ing her when he was seven years old and liked the job – he tried to op­er­ate a ko­pi­tiam at one point but that didn’t work out so he went back to sell­ing fried treats like gold cakes, sweet po­tato and taro, pisang goreng and red bean-filled se­same balls.

Kiong is a man who likes to do his own thing, and do it well, says Re­nee, and the one thing that he does very well is mak­ing fried gold cakes. It is a lot of hard work, but he does not mind.

“Not many peo­ple want to make nian gao the tra­di­tional way any­more as it is such hard work; now nian gao is made in fac­to­ries, but it is not so good.

“We make it from scratch us­ing gluti­nous rice so ours have a dif­fer­ent tex­ture and aroma,” says Re­nee. She meant the molten, rather elas­tic char­ac­ter of real nian gao; fac­tory-made ones of­ten lack the ten­sile strength and flavour of the slow-cooked.

Even pro­fes­sional chefs in the city ac­knowl­edge the qual­ity of their gold cakes and or­der from them for their restau­rants. Af­ter all, it is not some­thing that restau­rant kitchens want to make, con­sid­er­ing that they don’t need huge quan­ti­ties and mak­ing it well is an art best left to pas­sion­ate ex­perts like Kiong.

Typ­i­cal day

Their day starts at 5.30am when they go to the Pudu mar­ket to buy bananas. Once or twice a week they go to the whole­sale mar­ket in Se­layang to buy taro and sweet po­tato – each time they lug home about 150kg of each.

The cut

By 7am, they are at the stall, peel­ing, cut­ting and siz­ing the taro, sweet po­tato and gold cake. Kiong is metic­u­lous and pa­tient. He in­sists on cut­ting all the slices to the same 4cm by 8cm di­men­sion and slightly less than 1cm thick – the left­over cuts are col­lected by another hawker for other uses. Some­times he joins the odd cuts to form a 4x8 when he as­sem­bles the “ham­burger”, as they call it.

The bat­ter

Then the bat­ter is mixed – a com­bi­na­tion of rice flour, corn flour, bak­ing pow­der and salt. Kiong ex­per­i­mented with many dif­fer­ent kinds of flour be­fore ar­riv­ing at his fi­nal recipe. The fried cakes do not ab­sorb a lot of oil and re­main crispy even af­ter two to three hours.

The fry

By 9am, Kiong heats up the huge wok of palm oil over the gas stove. It takes 15 min­utes for the 18kg of oil to reach the right tem­per­a­ture. Kiong likes the Sawit Emas brand for its con­sis­tency and he is loyal to the brand.

He em­ploys a dou­ble fry­ing method to get a good crust. The as­sem­bled sand­wich is held with tongs and dipped into bat­ter and re­leased into hot oil. About 12 “ham­burg­ers” are fried at a go so as not to over­crowd the wok and keep the fry­ing con­sis­tent. Af­ter five min­utes, when the sand­wich is set, he re­moves it and dips it in bat­ter again for a sec­ond coat­ing.

“The first coat­ing does not stick well so I need to dou­ble up,” ex­plains Kiong. “Back it goes into hot oil for another 10 min­utes, un­til it reaches a golden brown colour. Kiong does not take his eyes off the cakes while they are fry­ing. When he fishes them out, each one is a beau­ti­ful golden brown cake with­out any burnt edges.

The golden cakes

The gold cakes are made once or twice a week de­pend­ing on de­mand at their home in Sri Kem­ban­gan, Se­lan­gor.

Re­nee’s mother lives with them and helps out with their two chil­dren and the busi­ness. They make four large trays mea­sur­ing 30cm by 60cm each time, us­ing 13kg of gluti­nous rice. Cake mak­ing day starts at 4am and ends at dusk.

Only three in­gre­di­ents are needed to make gold cakes: gluti­nous rice, su­gar and wa­ter. The rice is washed and soaked for 24 hours, rinsed again and then ground in a ma­chine, 5kg at a time. Each batch takes five to 10 min­utes. For 20 years be­fore they got the ma­chine four years ago, they sent the rice to the Pudu mar­ket to be ground. The ground rice goes into a cloth sack and a weight is placed on top for 30 min­utes to press out the wa­ter. Then it goes into a mixer, su­gar is added – in a 1:1 ra­tio – and this is mixed for 30 min­utes.

The batch is then poured into parch­ment-lined trays.

“There is no need to line the trays with ba­nana leaves as is the tra­di­tional prac­tice as we make our cakes with sticky rice (and not flour) so it will have a fragrant smell,” says Re­nee.

The cakes are steamed over high heat for one hour, then over medium heat for two hours.

The heat is turned up again and then re­duced – this moder­a­tion goes on all day, with Kiong judg­ing the needs by the chang­ing colour of the cakes. Af­ter six hours of cook­ing, the white bat­ter starts to brown and it takes about 15 hours of steam­ing to reach the right colour.

The left­over odd-sized bits of cake af­ter the cut­ting are placed on top of the new cakes half way through cook­ing to re­cy­cle them. They melt in the heat and form a new seam­less cake.

Af­ter cool­ing, the cakes are re­frig­er­ated to speed up the firm­ing process. Out of the steamer, the cakes are molten and must be hard­ened to a state where they can be sliced with a knife. At room tem­per­a­ture, this process takes one to two weeks.

De­spite the use of mod­ern equip­ment and a time-tested method­ol­ogy, nian gao mak­ing is still shrouded in su­per­sti­tious be­liefs.

It is still con­sid­ered taboo to ut­ter any cross words or ex­press strong emo­tions when one is mak­ing it. Preg­nant and men­stru­at­ing women are also not al­lowed near the prepa­ra­tion area.

So Kiong does not al­low Re­nee into the kitchen and of­ten in­sists on work­ing alone when he makes the cakes – maybe that is why Kiong has a some­what pale, blank face de­void of ex­pres­sion most of the time. But when he does smile, it’s a nice, happy smile.

For Chi­nese New Year, Imbi Fried Gold Cakes is closed from the first day to the ninth day. In­di­vid­ual gold cakes are also avail­able for sale at the stall the week be­fore Chi­nese New Year. There is a branch op­er­ated by a sib­ling at the Restoran New Seav­iew in Sea­park, Pe­tal­ing Jaya.

Crusty good­ness: Fried gold cakes from Imbi Fried Gold Cake at Mei Sin restau­rant in Medan Imbi. — Photo and food styling JULIE WONG/The Star

Best stacks: The as­sem­bled gold cake ‘burger’ ready for fry­ing. — Pho­tos aZ­Man GHanI /The Star

The cou­ple get­ting the oil ready to start fry­ing the gold cakes at Imbi Fried Gold Cake.

re­nee and ah Kiong with some freshly fried gold cakes.

Lay­ers of gold: Fried gold cakes from Imbi Fried Gold Cake at Mei Sin restau­rant in Medan Imbi. —

Photo JuLIe WOnG/The Star

Freshly fried crispy gold cakes.

Sweet po­tato and taro are cut to size.

As­sem­bling the gold cake ‘burger’.

The gold cake sand­wich gets a first coat­ing of bat­ter just be­fore it goes into the hot oil.

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