In a week, Chinese communities all over the world, especially in Asia, will celebrate the Lunar New Year. I’ve long had this whimsical idea of experiencing Chinese Lunar New Year in different parts of Asia but, alas, I booked our Chiang Mai trip before I learned the date of this year’s Chinese New Year. We will land in Chiang Mai three days late.
But that’s okay. Chinese New Year is big in the Philippines too. And one dish that is ever-present during the festivities is nian gao.
We call it tikoy here in the Philippines. I grew up with it. Even when I was still too young to go to school, I watched my grandfather slice the rice cake, cut it into slices, dip the slices in beaten egg and fry the slippery pieces until they were golden and the egg had turned into a lightly crisp crust. I don’t know if that’s how the Chinese serve their nian gao but that’s how we Filipinos enjoy tikoy.
Oh, I love tikoy. I’m craving right now. But these are photos from 2009. I wish I could post new ones but we can’t buy tikoy just like that. Not that they’re unavailable. They’re everywhere and in various shapes and flavors too. But, in accordance with Chinese beliefs, you’re not supposed to buy nian gao for personal consumption. You can only give it or accept it as a gift. Speedy, my husband, says that we respect the tradition.
What is nian gao made of?
Nian gao is made with glutinous rice flour, sometimes steamed and, at other times, cooked in a pan and stirred until thick. It may be savory or sweetened. How it is served varies from region to region. It may simply be pan fried, stir fried with meat and vegetables, dropped into soups or made into a pudding.
The nian gao given and received as gifts during Chinese New Year is the sweet variety.
How did nian gao become associated with the Lunar New Year?
One story has it that it was an offering to bribe the Kitchen God (a reference in Amy Tan’s The Kitchen God’s Wife) who reports everyone’s behavior to the Jade Emperor.
Another theory has to do with how nian gao is pronounced.
The pronunciation of Nian Gao sounds like ‘year high’ (年高), which symbolizes a higher income, a higher position, the growth of children, and generally the promise of a better year.China Highlights
This is how we prepare nian gao at home
Want to try cooking nian gao Filipino-style?
Take a sharp knife and wipe lightly with cooking oil. Position the knife on top of the nian gao and press down. Don’t cut using the sawing motion; otherwise, the cake will stick to the metal. The ideal thickness is 1/4 to 1/2 inch. My personal preference is on the thickish side. You may have to wipe the knife with oil repeatedly until you have sliced the whole nian gao.
Start heating oil in a wok or frying pan. This isn’t deep frying. You want just enough oil to reach a depth of about half an inch.
Dip each piece of rice cake in beaten egg.
Fry the nian gao in batches. The temperature of the oil should be somewhere between medium and low. What you are aiming for is to allow the rice cakes to soften in the heat before the egg darkens too much.
Flip the nian gao to brown the other side.
Drain the cooked nian gao on paper towels and serve immediately. If you cooked them correctly, the rice cakes should be soft and sticky while the outside is golden brown and crisp.