If you know the mythological story of the Kitchen God, then you will be familiar with nian gao. This sticky cake is made of glutinous rice and is offered to the Kitchen God to keep his mouth shut so he can’t bad-mouth the family that he is supposed to report on to the Jade Emperor of Heaven before Chinese New Year.
It is also a Chinese New Year specialty because of its auspicious sounding name. Nian gao literally means sticky cake, but it is transliterated as year high, so every Chinese family will buy this cake hoping for higher prosperity or an increment.
The cake is bought before Chinese New Year and is only eaten later in the year so that it can harden and be batter-fried between slices of taro and sweet potato.
My family usually buys two or more nian gao every year, one to steam when it is still fresh and soft, and keep the rest for frying later. We prefer to get the ones wrapped in banana leaves, but if unavailable, the ones in plastic will do fine.
Be aware that nian gao is extremely sticky when it is fresh, so it is recommended that you give a good brushing of a neutral-tasting oil all over the cutting board, the knife, and the plate that you intend to steam the nian gao in. I recommend either palm oil or sunflower oil, but you may also use peanut oil if you don’t mind the flavour. I would avoid corn oil and any blended oil because these can impart some flavours that can ruin your dish.
Cutting the nian gao into bite-size pieces will cut down the steaming duration and also be easier to pick up to roll in the coconut.
I also steam the fresh coconut first so that it will keep longer, and seasoning with salt also helps. If desired, you may also steam the coconut with pandan leaves but that is optional.
Roll the nian gao in coconut when it is still hot because it will not gather any coconut when it has cooled down. I find two pairs of chopsticks help me manoeuvre the sticky morsels around better.
This dish is best when it’s soft and gooey so serve immediately when it is still warm. It may remain soft at room temperature for about two hours, but the coconut will not remain fresh without refrigeration so it needs to be consumed within the day that it is made.
- 1 nian gao, about 350g
- 1 fresh grated coconut, about 250g
- 1 tsp salt
- Cooking oil, for brushing
- Place grated coconut in bowl and steam for 5 minutes. While the coconut is still hot, season with salt, and set aside to cool.
- Brush oil all over the knife, cutting board, and the plate that will be used for steaming the nian gao.
- Remove banana leaf wrapping from nian gao. Cut into one-centimetre slices, then into bite-size pieces.
- Place the cut-up nian gao in one layer on an oiled plate and steam over medium heat for 10-15 minutes, depending on the hardness of the nian gao. It is ready when it is soft and gooey.
- While it is still hot, pick up pieces of nian gao with an oiled chopstick and roll in grated coconut.
- Serve immediately, or within a day if kept in the refrigerator.