The ancient city of Suzhou is one of China’s most beloved, for it is under its swaying willow trees and along its winding canals that some of the country’s greatest poets and painters lived and dreamed.
RING IN THE YEAR
OF THE DRAGON
A series on celebrating Chinese New Year
Part 1: A dumpling, or jaozi, bash
Part 2: Hong Kong-style radish cakes
Part 3: Suzhou-style sweet rice cakes
A place of such refinement must of course have the cuisine to match, and as Suzhou is in the heart of fine Chinese dining — Jiangsu province — it is nothing if not sophisticated. Spices do not jar here in the Venice of the East, nor is anything too crunchy, too raw, too pungent. Diners pick at delicate plates arranged with savory slivers that strive to match the gentle scents of Jiangsu’s green teas and nutty rice wines. Harmony is the watchword. Delight is the goal.
Sweets here are also studies in perfection. Flavors fly just barely over the sensory radar, sugar is used with admirable restraint, and textures tend toward the soft and the gently chewy, as in this classic New Year dish, black sesame rice cakes, or heima niangao.
Unlike the rice cakes found in most Chinese markets this time of year, which are often hard and sweet and of indeterminate aroma, this homemade delicacy is velvety black, and each soft bite resounds with the taste of roasted sesame. The texture, too, is both subtle and delightful; the ground sesame seeds softly caress the lips and tongue, while the tender chewiness of the rice dough lends that unique consistency known in Chinese as “Q,” or elasticity.
Coffee, tea or company
This is the sort of sweet that one enjoys with a hot cup of tea and a good book. But if you are not a solitary poet or painter, you can relish it during New Year celebrations while surrounded by friends and family. Chinese children and the elderly all love this treat. It’s so popular you’ll find it disappearing faster that you thought possible.
Fortunately, black sesame cakes are extremely easy to put together even though they look exotic. If you make more than enough, consider wrapping some up for your Chinese friends; so few people make them anymore that recipients will be very impressed at your prowess, and even more in awe when they taste the gift!
Suzhou’s Black Sesame Rice Cakes
Serves 8 to 12 as a snack
- Empty the box of rice flour into a medium work bowl and use a wooden spoon to stir in the boiling water until a stiff paste has formed. Turn the paste out onto a smooth surface, and as soon as it has cooled down slightly, use a pastry scraper and your hands to knead it into a smooth dough.
- Place steamer paper into two steamer baskets (or rinse out two squares of muslin and place one in each basket); steam the baskets with the liner for about 10 minutes (see Tips). Cut the dough in half and pat each piece into a disc about 6 inches in diameter, place a disc in each of the steamers and steam for around 30 minutes. When done, the dough will be translucent all over and have no raw taste. Prepare a pie plate by smearing 1 tablespoon sesame oil inside.
- Sprinkle the sugar on a smooth, flat surface (see Tips). Remove from the liners (see Tips) and place both discs on top of the sugar. Scrape some of the sugar on top of the dough and knead it carefully with your fingers as it cools, using the sugar to protect your fingers (see Tips).
- Pour about 2 tablespoons of the sesame oil on a clean section of the flat surface and place the dough on top. Pat it out and sprinkle the ground sesame seeds and salt on top. Knead the dough with the sesame seeds and salt, dribbling more of the sesame oil on so that it does not stick. When the color is uniform, pat it into the prepared pie plate. Either serve it cut into squares like mochi, or cool, cover and refrigerate. (It may also be prepared ahead of time up to this point, covered and refrigerated.)
- To serve fried, slice the rice cake into thick strips, and then cut each strip widthwise into ½-inch pieces. Mix together the eggs and as much flour as needed to make a thin batter.
- Heat about ¼ inch of oil in a flat skillet over medium high heat until a bit of the batter dropped into pan immediately sizzles. Dip each slice of rice cake into the batter so that it is lightly coated. Arrange as many of the slices in the pan as will fit without touching, and fry on both sides until golden. Repeat with the rest. Serve immediately as is, or with a sprinkle of sugar.
Note: Mochiko brand “sweet” rice flour is the brand I always use, but any glutinous rice flour is fine as long as it is fresh; do not use regular rice flour, as it will not work here. Buy roasted sesame oil that is 100 percent sesame oil; some brands are thinned out with cottonseed or other oils. I’ve found that the Japanese brands are uniformly good. You can use about 4 ounces whole black sesame seeds and then pan roast and grind them yourself, if you wish; the seeds are best found in health food store bins, where you can taste whether they are fresh. I prefer the ease of ready-ground sesame and have come to enjoy the Taiwanese brand Hsin Tung Yang, which is in the slide show.
- You may use a food processor or stand mixer at all stages of this recipe, rather than mixing and kneading by hand. However, I’ve found that it comes together so quickly that it is faster for me to just use a bowl and clean surface; see directions on how to use the bottom side of a cutting board.
- Use care when first kneading the hot dough, and work it only with your fingertips until it is cool enough for your palms to handle. A dough scraper is vital for lifting up and turning over the hot dough.
- Steaming the liner paper or muslin first helps keep the dough from sticking. Another good trick is to wet your hands before picking up the steamed dough and then rinsing the back of the paper or muslin under the faucet; the dough will slide off easily.
- The sugar helps to shield your hands from the freshly steamed dough, but you must work the sugar in while the dough is still fairly warm, or else the it will become too stiff and won’t have enough heat and moisture to melt the sugar.
- Use sesame oil not only to keep the dough from sticking to the board, but also to add another layer of fragrance to the rice cakes.
- Toasted nuts are delicious if added to the rice dough at the last minute. Dry-fry a large handful of walnuts or pine nuts until golden and then knead them into the dough. They add an extra touch of gentle crunchiness and a nice warmth to the sesame.
- If you want a lighter coating for the fried rice cakes, simply dust them with cornstarch and shake off the extra before frying.
Zester Daily contributor Carolyn J. Phillips is a Chinese food wonk and illustrator who has a cookbook to be published by McSweeney’s in 2014. In addition to Zester Daily, you can find her on her blog and as @MadameHuang on Twitter; her food writing can be found in places as disparate as Lucky Peach and Pork Memoirs.
Top photo: Black sesame rice cakes. Carolyn J. Phillips
Photo and slide show credits: Carolyn J. Phillips