KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 8 – Lunar New Year is almost upon us and Chinese families everywhere are scrambling to prepare for the celebrations by cooking up a storm for reunion dinner. Auspicious ingredients must be sourced well ahead of time before the stores run out of them (or the best available quality anyway).
How does an ingredient qualify as auspicious? For the Chinese, symbolism is of paramount importance. Homonyms — words that have the same pronunciation but different meanings — are the reason why certain dishes or ingredients are popular during the Lunar New Year. It has less to do with the tastes of the ingredient (though that’s important too) and more to do with their symbolic meaning
This is why so many dishes during reunion dinner of the Lunar New Year Eve feature black moss or fatt choy, as its name sounds like “gaining wealth”, and eating dried oysters (ho xi) symbolises good luck. Fish is a must as its name in Chinese, yu, means “having a surplus” – something most prosperity-conscious folks are keen on.
It’s no easy task though, especially when you are preparing a feast for a big family. As our parents age, even the simplest dish takes more care and effort to assemble. Filial children (and grandchildren) often ask their elders to take a rest and opt for dining out at restaurants instead. It just makes more sense though one misses the special-ness and specificity that comes from a menu of home-cooked dishes that belongs to one’s family alone.
There’s no reason to avoid the kitchen even if one is dining out. One simply needs to think in more basic terms. Rather than a dish that requires over a dozen ingredients and an hour or two to cook, how about one that only needs three ingredients, 15 minutes, and taste delightful to boot?
I’m talking about nian gao (sticky rice cake made from glutinous rice floor and brown sugar), a popular Lunar New Year dish. Its name in Chinese sounds like a combination of “year” (nian) and “higher” (gao), giving it the auspicious connotation of a more prosperous year should you take a bite of it.
Everyone has seen the ready-made nian gao at the supermarkets and wet markets. These are steamed in banana leaves which add a lovely fragrance. What, did you think I was going to suggest you make nian gao from scratch? Consider this the easy-peasy, Lunar New Year nian gao for dummies version.
Typically, Cantonese-style nian gao is cut and served in thick slices. These cut slices may also be pan fried so that it’s crispy on the outside but still gooey inside. Another popular way of serving it is to sandwich slices of nian gao in between pieces of sweet potato or taro and dipping in batter before deep-frying them.
Instead of the traditional preparation which often entails removing the aromatic banana leaves from the nian gao after cooking, why not steam these with a topping of freshly grated coconut and gula Melaka? When the nian gao is done, all that remains is to dig in with a spoon and to scoop up the über-gooey concoction into one’s mouth. Trust me, it’s good to the last sticky drop and there’s no mess to clean up as you can just dispose of the banana leaf “container” when you’re done.
It’s a sweet ending to any reunion dinner and promises of sweeter things to come in the year ahead. Gong Xi Fa Cai and Happy Year of the Sheep!
I first came up with the idea for this “steamed nian gao for dummies” when I bought some very fresh nian gao that were too soft to cut easily into pieces. Instead of waiting a few days for the nian gao to harden (I was hungry and impatient), I decided to steam them inside their banana leaf wrappings (not unlike natural ramekins).
The addition of freshly grated coconut and gula Melaka lends a very Malaysian flavour to this Cantonese-style dish (other Chinese clans have their own versions of nian gao, most savoury). Once the steaming commences, it won’t be long before the heady aromas of coconut and gula Melaka hit you; it’s a delectable scent but you’re not likely to dine on the smell alone. (I certainly didn’t.)
Have a spoon or two ready. Share with your family and loved ones. This dessert may be offered in individual portions, of course, but it’s best enjoyed together.
4-6 nian gao, still in their banana leaf wrappings
200g fresh coconut, grated
200g gula Melaka, grated
Divide and scatter freshly grated coconut on top of each of the nian gao, followed by some grated gula Melaka. Steam for 15 minutes. Serve immediately, with spoons to scoop out the nian gao mixture. Top with more freshly grated coconut and gula Melaka if desired.
Yield: Serves 4-6 people.
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