I’ve been lamenting for weeks the lack of snow this holiday season. I work on the Magnificent Mile in downtown Chicago and nothing is more magical or picturesque this time of the year. When the snow dusts the bustling street that twinkles with hundreds of holiday lights, the energy and excitement is contagious and I can’t help but smile. It sounds like I just described a scene out of a movie, and on those days, it really is. However, so far this year, with the warmer weather, my movie-esque experience has failed to materialize. BUT, today, I thought, was the day- the first snow of the season. FINALLY! One problem. This wasn’t the perfect snow, the one that lightly dusts your clothing as you excitedly skip about, the one you watch longingly from inside your nice cozy house, drinking your hot chocolate as Mother Nature blankets the world in white. This was your “wait, is it rain? Is it snow? No, it’s both, and therefore, just gross. Want a dusting? How about a cold drenching? Take that!”
Being the brightest light bulb in the box that I am sometimes, I thought today would be great day to head north to the Asian grocery stores after work to pick up some ingredients to make some Eastern holiday delights. Normally, I love the chance to get out of my yuppie neighborhood and to explore the little pockets of the city that reveal a life brought over from another world. Today was not that day. Trudging through the rain/snow with my wonky half-broken umbrella, I entered the grocery store with my list of ingredients that I needed to prepare authentic treats courtesy of Tomato and Yucca. Problem: The ingredients were in Japanese, and not only could I not pronounce these words, I realized when I got there and started walking down aisle upon aisle of food in non-English packaging, that I had NO idea what I was looking for or what these things even looked like. The store proprietors, bless their hearts (as Yam would proclaim), spoke little English and even less Japanese, and had no idea what they were either. Tomato to the rescue as she texted me through the English names, packaging and so forth of what I need to make her New Years’ Soup (recipe for another post). One hour and a half and two grocery stores later, I headed home to make the first of two dishes from the far east. Lacking the energy to make Tomato’s, I made Yucca’s, and throwing it together, with only six ingredients, took all of ten minutes. So as the nian gao bakes, and the wind howls outside, I’m left with plenty of time to sit, relax, put my feet up with a cup of hot chocolate, stare out my window and watch the slush come down.
My coworker Yucca was happy to provide her thoughts on a Chinese tradition that she and her family enjoy over the New Year, Nian Gao, or a mochi cake made of red bean paste. Here’s her take on it:
Traditionally, nian gao is steamed and pretty labor intensive to make and is made without eggs. But the baked version is adopted by immigrants for the American kitchen. I never made the steamed version but remember seeing my grandmother making it from my childhood. We would have the nian gao, various versions of it, sweet (plain with just sugar, or with red bean paste), savory, or fried. The fried version is usually made with leftover nian gao. You take the leftover nian gao, slice it, prepare an egg batter, dip the nian gao slices in the batter and pan fry it.
There are many many dishes that my family would prepare during New Years. But to me, nian gao definitely signify the holidays (new year). It is not something that one eats everyday.
According to the various sources I found, nian gao means “every year higher and higher,” and eating it on New Years’ eve signifies a hope that the next year will be even better than the last. Also, on New Years, rumor has it that this was fed to the Kitchen God to ensure that his mouth would stick together, preventing him from reporting a family’s bad deeds to the higher gods.
To be honest, I was skeptical and for no good reason. I use beans in baking all the time as a fat substitute, but the thought of a dessert that revolves around beans… well, that sounds along the lines of fruit and dessert to me. Egg on my face, because these little bean cakes were delicious. Warm out of the oven, I may have had more than one. Or two. Depending on where you are, coconut, sesame, and other flavors can be added. It can also be deep fried, and I bet that’s all kinds of delicious. I tweaked the recipe Yucca sent me a bit, using coconut milk rather than regular just because I had some open in the fridge. I really implore you to try these. You, too, will be pleasantly surprised.
- 1 16-oz bag glutinous rice flour
- 3 eggs
- 1/3 cup vegetable oil
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 cups lite coconut milk
- 1 cup sweetened red bean paste
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Oil either a 9 x 13 pan or 2 loaf pans. (Genius again, I did not do this. Not greasing the pan of a STICKY RICE CAKE= bad idea)
- Mix together the first five ingredients and blend well. Stir in the red bean paste.
- Bake for 40-45 minutes until a knife inserted comes out clean.
- Ingredient note: Glutinous rice flour made from short grain rice and results in food with a very chewy texture. It can withstand refrigeration, freezing and high humidity, making it a popular choice in Asian sweets and pastries. Despite the name, it’s a great ingredient for my gluten-free friends!