As a follow up to some recent discussion about the cultural significance of eating glutinous rice cakes on New Year’s, I thought I would share the customs and traditions observed by my Chinese family. Nian gao, or Chinese New Year’s Cake, is made by grounding glutinous (sticky) rice into a powder and forming that powder into paste. Eating nian gao on Harvest New Year’s is considered good luck because the name, in addition to its literal meaning of “New Year’s Cake,” phonetically sounds like “yearly rise” or “rise higher with each year.” Or, if your name is Donna, then you have misinterpreted nian gao to mean “sticky cake” (phonetically “nian” can also mean “sticky”) for a large portion of your life (ahem, until a month ago). Glutinous, sticky rice forms sticky cake. Makes sense, right? I guess “rise higher with each year” has a nicer ring to it.
Nian gao comes in many different forms. In Cantonese cuisine, nian gao is sweetened with brown sugar and can be served as is, in a pudding, or pan fried. In Shanghainese cuisine, nian gao is formed into a rod shape to be sliced (today, most nian gao comes pre-sliced). Though there are different Shanghainese preparations of nian gao, such as in soup or the lightly sweetened variety, the most popular version is savory nian gao stir fried with napa cabbage and pork. Yao Fuzi has this item on their specials menu from time to time, but I’ll share my basic recipe for those who are interested in home preparation. You can easily fancy up this recipe by adding mushrooms, shallots, and whatever else you prefer.
Shanghai Style Savory New Year’s Cake
I probably should have waited for the dish to cool a little more before photographing as the steam washed out the colors. But hey, I was hungry.
8 to 10 oz package of pre-sliced nian gao (found in the noodle aisle at most Asian grocers. You can also sometimes find the fresh variety in the produce section. For this recipe, use 1/2 lb fresh nian gao and skip the soaking process)
3 to 4 cups shredded napa cabbage
1/3 lb pork tenderloin, cut into bite sized slivers
1 tbsp soy sauce
1/2 tbsp sherry (or beef broth)
1 tsp powdered ginger
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp white pepper powder
1 tsp sesame oil
Soak nian gao in room temperature water for 4-6 hours, until nian gao disks have a rubbery texture.
While nian gao is soaking, combine 1 tbsp soy sauce, 1/2 tbsp sherry, 1 tsp ginger powder, and a pinch of sugar in a small bowl to make the marinade for the pork slices. Pour marinade over pork pieces in a ziplock bag and marinate for at least an hour (I usually just let it marinate for as long as the nian gao is soaking).
Heat wok over medium-high heat. Add in pork slices and stir fry for 2-3 minutes or until pork is no longer pink on the exterior (pork will be returned to the wok to finish cooking later). Remove pork from wok to a plate.
Heat 2 tbsp of vegetable oil in wok over medium-high heat. Add in shredded napa cabbage and 1 tsp of salt. Stir fry 1-2 minutes or until cabbage is starting to wilt.
Drain niao gao, add nian gao to the wok join the napa cabbage, breaking up any nian gao disks that may be sticking to each other. Add 1 tsp of salt and 1 tsp of white pepper. Stir fry nian gao and cabbage mixture for 4-5 minutes, or until nian gao disks are mostly soft (edges should be “floppy”). Return pork to wok. Drizzle 1 tsp of sesame oil over the wok. Stir fry 1-2 minutes more or until nian gao disks are completely soft (should be able to puncture disks easily with a fork) and pork is completely heated through.
So whether you eat Japanese mochi, Vietnamese banh day, Chinese nian gao, or Korean tteok, a bit of glutinous rice cake on New Year’s is a must for good luck.