It’s Chinese New Year! Which means three things:
- Dumplings, because their shape resembles money bags.
- Fish, because the word for fish (鱼, pronounced yú) sounds the same as the word for plenty (余).
- These sticky rice cakes, because the word for sticky (粘, pronounced nián) sounds the same as the word for year (年).
There’s a bunch of other traditions that I don’t really observe – I stopped getting red envelopes filled with money by the time I understood what money meant (a shame, really), I don’t really have family nearby that I call on, and the neighbors would have major complaints if I set off ridiculously loud firecrackers in the middle of the night. A few years ago, though, I had the pleasure of actually celebrating Chinese New Year with my dad’s side of the family in China. It was a sensory delight.
The raging fire (and resulting pile of coals) is called a 旺火, or a prosperity flame. It’s a Northern Chinese tradition, and each household usually burns one over the course of the holiday, welcoming guests and ushering in a year of good spirits.
The day of the new year itself is filled with visits to friends and family, and plenty of good old-fashioned hanging out. The streets are filled with vendors selling all sorts of gifts, just in case you were behind on your shopping and didn’t want to show up empty-handed.
These days, to me, Chinese New Year is about celebrating good food with the people you love (and sometimes hate). So every year, I bake an enormous batch of my mom’s super-tasty (and super easy-to-make!) sticky rice cakes to share. And every year, I keep telling everyone that I’m finally going to post the recipe, because something this good and easy shouldn’t stay a secret for too long. This year, I’m finally doing it.
(I thought my mom developed this recipe through years of trial and error, but today she told me she got it from a Chinese newspaper years ago. I feel like a little part of the magic died with that revelation…but they’re still tasty, so thank you, random Chinese newspaper article.)
Sticky Rice Cakes (aka 年糕, or Nian Gao)
1.5 cups milk
1 stick butter, melted
1 lb. glutinous rice flour (16 oz. bag)
1 cup sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1 can coconut milk (13.5 fl. oz., or thereabouts)
Do not preheat the oven. I repeat, do not preheat the oven.
Mix everything except for the coconut milk. When it’s all mixed, stir in the coconut milk. It’ll be super runny. Pour into a [generously greased] 13×9 pan (or two 8-inch rounds). If desired, garnish top with nuts (we usually use pecans, but anything goes).
Put it in the oven, and turn it to 375. Bake for about an hour, or until top looks golden. Turn off the heat, but leave it in the warm oven for another few hours (usually we make this at night and take it out the next morning).
NOTES: we’re not meticulous cooks, so we’ve made this a whole number of ways. Use whatever milk you want; water also works just as well. Butter can be salted or unsalted. I’ve forgotten the baking powder many a time, and it turns out just fine. You can get glutinous rice flour at any Asian supermarket, or, if you live in the Asian-saturated throes of Berkeley, you can find it at your local Safeway. The coconut milk is added last because otherwise it becomes too runny and difficult to stir out the lumps. And speaking of lumps, don’t worry too much about the small clumps. Seriously, this recipe is pretty foolproof.