Cakes with a lofty aim

China Daily European Weekly - - FRONT PAGE - By PAULINE D LOH paulined@chi­

In the weeks be­fore Spring Fes­ti­val, the busiest room in the Chinese house­hold is al­ways the kitchen. There must be an abun­dance of food in the larder and on the ta­ble to welcome the new year.

This is the big­gest fes­ti­val on the cal­en­dar, and the one time in the year when fam­ily mem­bers scat­tered in the big cities re­turn home for the an­nual re­union. It is also of­ten the only time when mi­grant work­ers of all strata can re­lax at home, catch up with fam­ily and friends, rest and make merry.

You can­not make merry with­out good food and drinks, and no one knows that bet­ter than the Chinese cook. There is a long list of dishes and snacks to pre­pare, all with suit­ably aus­pi­cious names or mean­ings to make sure ev­ery bit of luck is cap­tured. Take the mak­ing of sweet and sa­vory cakes, or gao, the name of which is ho­mo­phonic with “high” or “heights” and sym­bolic of the am­bi­tions for the next 12 months. One of the best known is nian gao, the sweet sticky gluti­nous rice flour cakes that are a must for the cel­e­bra­tions. Made with red or brown sugar, these sticky cakes will be of­fered to the Kitchen God a week be­fore New Year’s Eve, just as he re­turns to Heaven to make his an­nual re­port to the Jade Em­peror. The crafty house­wives hope that his jaws will be so busy chew­ing on the sweet cakes that he won’t have time to file a bad re­port.

Of course, hu­mans en­joy ni­an­gao just as much, and they have de­vel­oped many dif­fer­ent vari­a­tions, rang­ing from red raw sugar cakes in the shape of the golden carp, to co­conut milk fla­vored cakes dot­ted with sweet red beans, to plain white and brown ones that will be sliced and coated with an egg bat­ter and fried.

There are also ni­an­gao scented with os­man­thus, and plain white, un­sweet­ened ni­an­gao.

In the eastern prov­inces of Jiangsu and Zhe­jiang, in­clud­ing Shanghai, steamed gluti­nous rice is la­bo­ri­ously pounded un­til it be­comes a smooth sticky dough, which is molded into in­gots and stamped with red for good luck. These are then dried.

When the time comes to cook these, they are sliced and fried with pork and cab­bage for the first feasts of spring.

Where there is sweet, there will be sa­vory, and no one pre­pares the sa­vory cakes for New Year bet­ter than the Can­tonese, us­ing fat white Chinese radishes, large pur­ple yams and golden pump­kins.

A tra­di­tional new year greet­ing in the south is bubu gaosheng — “may your ev­ery step bring you to higher ground” — of­ten ut­tered while en­cour­ag­ing guests to have ad­di­tional help­ings of lu­obo gao, yutougao or jin­gua­gao.

Radish, yam or pump­kin are re­ally vari­a­tions on the same theme. The base is al­ways a slurry of rice flour, en­riched with plenty of shred­ded root veg­eta­bles and fla­vored with diced cured meats, dried shrimp or cut­tle­fish and plenty of diced dried shi­itake mush­rooms.

The gar­nishes are just as col­or­ful, us­ing a mix­ture of spring onions and diced red chili pep­pers.

For dessert, guests in Can­tonese house­holds would be of­fered a translu­cent jelly made with wa­ter chest­nuts, a re­fresh­ing mati­gao that is sweet and crunchy.

Just a lit­tle north of Guangzhou, near where Guang­dong prov­ince meets Fu­jian, the Chaoshan peo­ple are known for their new year pas­tries called guo.

Of­ten with sticky, chewy wrap­pers, these are formed in beau­ti­fully carved wooden molds that have been listed as an in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage in China.

Angkukuih, bright red tor­toise cakes in the shape of that ce­les­tial rep­tile, are filled with sweet mung bean paste, or a mix­ture of crushed peanuts and sugar. No fes­tiv­ity is com­plete with­out these tra­di­tional tem­ple of­fer­ings.

The prag­matic peo­ple of Chaoshan also make peach cakes or png kuih, also called tor kuih, molded in the shape of longevity peaches and filled with sa­vory gluti­nous rice. An­other pop­u­lar cake is the soon

kuih, a pas­try made with wheat starch and filled with shred­ded bam­boo, yam bean or ji­cama, minced pork and dried prawns.

It is ev­ery Chinese house­wife’s lofty am­bi­tion that her fam­ily never goes hun­gry, es­pe­cially dur­ing Spring Fes­ti­val, and she is pre­pared to gal­va­nize the whole house­hold be­fore the fes­tiv­i­ties be­gin. The count­down has only just started.


Golden fishes made of gluti­nous rice flour.

Ed­i­tor's Note: The count­down to the Spring Fes­ti­val has be­gun for mil­lions of Chinese kitchens all over the world as they pre­pare for the new lu­nar year. We help you to un­der­stand some of the culi­nary tra­di­tions and recipes that have been passed down from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion.

Taro cake is a very pop­u­lar snack dur­ing Chinese New Year.

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