Chinese New Year is just around the corner. A large part of the holiday includes giving and eating a host of traditional foods meant to impart good luck and fortune. Noodles and garlic chives represent a long life, dumplings and oranges symbolize wealth, a whole fish stands for prosperity, and tangerines bring luck. The granddaddy of them all, however, is gao, or rice cakes, a broad category that encompasses many different varieties. Perhaps the best-known type is nian gao (literally translated as “year cake”), a dense, sweet, sticky dessert with a multitude of symbolic meanings. The round shape of the cake represents family reunion or togetherness, the word gao (a homonym for “higher”) implies prosperity (as in, every year, higher and higher) and the sweetness symbolizes a sweet life. For nonbelievers, gao represents something much simpler: tasty Chinese food.
While I didn’t grow up eating sweet nian gao (my mom wasn’t fond of it: “too sticky, too boring”), my family definitely didn’t skimp on any of the other New Year’s fare. As I grew older, I began to appreciate the merits of the sweet and chewy rice cake. For better or worse, I learned ways of changing the recipe (adding eggs and oil for a baked alternative with a “custard” top, replacing the water with coconut milk, or including unconventional add-ins like chocolate) to make it a little more interesting. This year, however, I decided to go back to a more basic version with a little twist: A steamed traditional cake with an unexpected stripe of sweetened red bean paste in the center. Thinly sliced and pan-fried with a lacy coating of beaten egg, what’s not to like?
Despite my lack of early exposure to nian gao, savory rice cakes were another story. Whenever I’d go to dim sum with my family, I would constantly be on the lookout for my favorite dish: luo buo gao (lo bak gao in Cantonese). In English, it’s known as daikon cake, radish cake or — erroneously — as turnip cake. After one of us flagged down the right server, I’d watch, transfixed, as the steamed white rectangles of daikon cake were magically pan-fried to a golden brown in front of me, on a cart! Crisp on the outside, soft on the inside and studded with delectable (but, sadly, often nearly undetectable) bits of Chinese sausage, shiitake mushrooms and tiny dried shrimp, they were the perfect package of texture and flavor. I vowed that one day I would learn to make them. Recently, after an initial investment in a large steamer pot and several trial batches, I found success. When my friends come over to sample the appetizers for our New Year’s Eve dinner this Saturday, they won’t need magnifying glasses to see all the good stuff.
Crispy daikon cakes (Luo buo gao)
The dried shiitake mushrooms, dried shrimp, lap cheong, daikon, fried shallots, rice flour, oyster sauce and sweet chili sauce can be found at most Chinese markets. Do not substitute glutinous rice flour for the rice flour: The cakes will turn out dense and chewy. If you’d rather not use packaged pre-fried shallots, you can certainly make your own. Stainless steel and aluminum steamer pots are available in the housewares section of most large Asian markets.
Serves 8 to 10 as an appetizer
- Place the dried mushrooms in a small bowl and cover with hot water; soak 1 hour.
- Drain, squeeze out excess moisture, and chop fine. Place the dried shrimp in another small bowl and cover with warm water; soak 30 minutes. Drain and chop fine.
- Combine mushrooms and shrimp; set aside.
- In a large skillet over medium-high heat, cook the sausages until browned and fat renders out, 6 to 8 minutes.
- Add the mushroom-shrimp mixture and cook 2 to 3 minutes stirring constantly.
- Stir in the daikon, salt, fried shallots and 1½ cups of the water and simmer until almost all moisture has evaporated and daikon is tender, about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Remove from heat; let cool 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile, set a steamer rack into a wok and fill with enough water to come halfway between the bottom of the wok and the top of the rack; cover. Alternatively, fill the base of an 11½- to 12-inch tiered steamer pot halfway with water and place a perforated steaming tier on top; cover. Bring the water to a simmer over medium-high heat. Grease the bottom and sides of an 8-inch round nonstick cake pan with oil.
- In a large bowl, whisk together the rice flour, the remaining 1½ cups water, the oyster sauce and the white pepper until smooth. Stir in the mushroom-sausage mixture. Pour the mixture into the prepared cake pan. Set the pan on top of the steamer rack or in the steamer pot; cover.
- Steam the radish cake until set, about 45 minutes, adding water to the bottom of the wok or steamer pot as needed to maintain steam. Carefully transfer to a cooling rack and let cool 1 hour. Pour off any condensation that has accumulated on top of the cake. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
- Run a small rubber spatula along the sides of the cake pan to loosen the daikon cake. Carefully invert onto a cutting board. Cut the daikon cake into ¾-inch-thick slices, then cut again crosswise into 2½- to 3-inch-long planks.
- In a large nonstick skillet, warm 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil over medium-high heat. Working in batches, pan-fry the daikon cake slices until crispy and golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes per side, adding more oil to the pan as needed. Serve warm, with sweet chili sauce or oyster sauce alongside for dipping.
Chinese New Year Cake (nian gao) with red bean filling
Glutinous rice flour is also known as sweet rice flour. Do not use regular rice flour. Sweetened red bean paste is available canned in either smooth or partially mashed consistencies. Both glutinous rice flour and sweetened red bean paste can be found in most Asian markets. The nian gao can be served while it is still soft and sticky: slice and serve after cooling at room temperature for 1 hour instead of refrigerating and pan-frying. It can also be pan-fried plain (without the egg wash), if desired.
In a small bowl, stir the brown sugar and boiling water until the sugar is completely dissolved; let cool completely.
Set a steamer rack into a wok and fill with enough water to come halfway between the bottom of the wok and the top of the rack; cover. Alternatively, fill the base of an 11 ½- to 12-inch tiered steamer pot halfway with water and place a perforated steaming tier on top; cover. Bring the water to a simmer over medium-high heat. Grease the bottom and sides of an 8-inch round nonstick cake pan with oil.
Place the glutinous rice flour in a large bowl and make a well in the center. Pour in the brown sugar water and cold water. Stir with a rubber spatula until the mixture is completely smooth.
Pour half of the mixture into the prepared cake pan, smoothing it with a rubber spatula so that it coats the bottom of the pan evenly. Add the red bean paste on top in an even layer. Pour the remaining batter on top and smooth it out with a rubber spatula. Scatter the sesame seeds on top. Set the pan on top of the steamer rack or in the steamer pot; cover.
Steam the nian gao until set, about 45 minutes, adding water to the bottom of the wok or steamer pot as needed to maintain steam. Carefully transfer to a cooling rack and let cool 1 hour. Pour off any condensation that has accumulated on top of the cake. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
Run a small rubber spatula along the sides of the cake pan to loosen the nian gao. Carefully invert onto a cutting board. Cut the nian gao into ¼-inch-thick slices, then cut again crosswise into 2½- to 3-inch-long planks.
In a large nonstick skillet, warm 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil over medium heat. Beat the eggs in a medium bowl. One at a time, dip the nian gao slices into the egg and place in the skillet. Pan-fry until just golden, about 40 seconds per side, adding more oil to the pan as needed. Serve warm.
Sandra Wu is a San Francisco-based food writer, editor and recipe developer who currently works as a test kitchen cook at Williams-Sonoma’s corporate headquarters.
Photos of crispy daikon cake (top) and cross section of red bean paste-filled nian gao, by Sandra Wu