I’m very pleased to my sister Dr T on as my first guest ever! Dr T is currently a PhD candidate and writes about her life as a graduate student. You can hop onto her blog here.
Happy Lunar New Year!
2015 is the year of the Ram! Chinese New Year’s is a holiday centered on food, fortune, and metaphors. The traditional foods that are eaten in celebration of the New Year’s are meant to bring prosperity and fortune to all. Chinese is a rather poetic language, replete with homophones and many of the dishes are a play on words. My favorite thing to eat and make at New Year’s is niangao, which translates as year cake. This dish is meant to represent the coming of an auspicious year; the two words figuratively translate as “high year”. I love making red bean niangao, but this year I was adventurous and made my own savory niangao too.
What exactly is niangao? Let’s start off with the savory kind. I suppose the most relatable correlate would be gnocchi, except it’s all made out of rice. I have Shanghai roots and this was a common dish growing up. Shanghai niangao has many iterations but my favorite is cooked with minced pork, napa cabbage, and shitake mushrooms. The base, of course, is the niangao and you build up from there. I wanted to share this dish with my Caucasian roommate, who is vegetarian so I made up my own little recipe for our New Year’s celebration. In this stir-fried dish, I included ginger, shitake mushrooms, napa cabbage, carrots, zucchini, onion, bamboo shoot, and green onion. With at least 8 ingredients, I believe this would also count as “Buddha’s delight”. I never use recipes while cooking and make things up as I go. It’s basically a stir-fry with the vegetables + niangao with a soy-sauce sauce*. *soy sauce, a dash of salt, a pinch of sugar, a bit of cornstarch and water. This drives my sister crazy. (It does.)
I make at least 3 batches of sweet niangao every year and I make at least a brown sugar one and a red bean one. Sweet niangao is similar to mochi and is made from the same ingredients—glutinous rice flour, sugar, and water. The trick with the red beans is the preparation. I boil it for about an hour until it’s soft enough to break with a fork. Then add sugar. DO NOT add sugar until the red beans are the consistency you want them to be. If you add sugar before they are ready, the beans will be hard. In other words, the beans will not continue to soften after you add sugar. The sugar will leech some water out of the beans too, which is great because then you just need to mix your red bean mixture with the glutinous rice flour.
Nian gao noodles
Soak rice overnight (or at least 8 hours)
Drain rice in a colander (at least 30 minutes). This will also dry it out a bit when processing to make a flour.
Boil ¾ cup of water. Meanwhile, grind drained rice in a food processor until a fine consistency. You may want to also run it through a strainer to remove any large lumps.
Add salt to the rice flour and give it a stir.
Slowly add the hot water. It shouldn’t be too wet but wet enough to be like loose dough.
Steam dough for 40 minutes.
If you have a wooden mallet, pound the dough. If not, then just knead the dough for a few minutes.
Roll into logs and chill for at least 2 hours.
Slice into ovalettes.
Cook it however you want. Freeze unused noodles.
Red Bean Niangao
1 cup Red beans
2 cups Glutinous rice flour
1 cup sugar
Preheat oven to 375
Boil red beans in water until soft (45 minutes). Add water if it completely evaporates until the beans are easily breakable with a spoon or fork.
Add sugar. I do it by the quarter cup and taste to see if it’s sweet enough.
Turn off the heat and let it stand for about 5-10 minutes. This is only because you want it to be cool enough to touch when kneading the dough.
Pour rice flour in a large bowl.
Pour red beans into the rice. First mix with a fork. It might be dry. Add water a quarter cup at a time until it forms a dough that can come together as a ball.
Knead with your hands. This sounds odd but also throw the dough into the bowl. This is to create air pockets and make the cake extra chewy.
Put it in the oven and bake for an hour.