Cakes with a lofty aim
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.