When I was growing up, my parents hosted three, maybe four parties a year in our old house on Hamilton Place. Chinese New Year, my mother’s birthday in October and Thanksgiving were all raucous affairs where we invited Dad’s students, Mom’s co-workers, various neighbors and occasionally Dad would pull strangers in off the street to help eat an eight course Chinese banquet.
My favorite was New Year. New year was unusual because there were really only two types of food: dumplings and dessert. Dad and NaiNai would make hundreds of little crescent shaped dumplings with meat and vegetarian filling. I liked dumplings, particularly the pan-fried ones, a lot, dipped in soy, vinegar and sesame oil that we kids called “puddles”. But Dad made dumplings pretty regularly. The desserts were special. There were two, 湯圓 (tang yua’r) and 年糕 (nian gao). Tang yua’r were sweet rice dumplings, usually boiled and filled with bean, sesame or fruit paste. But best of all was nian gao. There’s nothing quite like its greasy, gluey sweetness and we only ever had it at New Year.
It took Dad several days to make. First he soaked the snow white glutinous rice in water for a day or so. Then he put it through the blender, producing a white slurry. The slurry could take two paths: it could be put in an sack (sometimes made of a white t-shirt) and hung over a bowl in the basement to drain for several days. He used the resulting dough for making tang yua’r. Or he mixed the slurry with sugar and steamed it. After it cooked into a solid block of sweet starch, it would cool and dry for several days. Then Dad would slice it, dip it in egg and fry it.
I have tried making nian gao once or twice in my life, but it’s a lot of work. I figured out that one can just get a box of mochi flour from the Asian grocery and make slurry (or tang yau’r dough). But it’s still a lot of work. Then a couple of weeks ago, I went to make rice for dinner and discovered that weevils had gotten in the glutinous rice. (I usually cook a mix of glutinous rice and some more healthy, high fiber rice). Glutinous rice isn’t cheap and I had a large tub of it, so I grumpily stuffed the whole tub into the freezer overnight, then rinsed out the rice. My husband skimmed out a few of the weevil corpses to show the kids under a microscope and I thought about the 18th century English navy and their weevily hard tack biscuits.
I had to do something with several pounds of wet rice, so I decided to try nian gao from the grain up. I soaked it and put it in the blender, a few ladles full at a time. I spent hours as a kid watching Dad put things in a blender. For a few years it was the only kitchen appliance we had (besides a toaster oven) and Dad used it as a food processor for dumpling filling and a great many other things. I always wanted to push the buttons, as do my own kids. I’m not sure what difference there is between the “puree” and the “blend” button, but I can still picture the color and shape of the row of buttons on our old 1970s blender.
When I got the slurry, I put some of it to drain in a muslin lined strainer, but most of it I mixed with sugar, adding a pinch of salt and some almond extract. Then I had to rig up the steamer. Dad had an enormous bamboo steamer that he used for everything from duck to bread rolls. It was dark brown with age, grease and moisture and it sat on top of a big canning kettle. Usually he wound rags around the base of the steamer to keep too much steam from escaping. When he made nian gao, he would line the steamer with foil, put some bamboo chunks around the edges for steam vents and pour the rice slurry in. The not-so-warm-and-fuzzy memory of nian gao is having to pick out chunks of foil from the cold brick of nian gao before cooking it.
My steamer is small and usually sits in the cupboard under a stack of waterbottle lids and popsicle molds. But it is the traditional shape. I decided that parchment paper would be a far superior liner. I briefly considered going out to the back of the yard and hacking off a piece of fresh bamboo to make vents, but my husband had thoughtfully left a small piece of PVC plumbing tubing in the middle of the kitchen floor from a recent plumbing project. So I used that instead.
I poured the slurry into the lined steamer sections, settled the steamer onto a suitable sized pot and wound muslin around the base. In retrospect, I think Dad probably set the cloth partially in the pot, and set the steamer on top of it, but it worked out.
It steamed for an hour or so and when it felt firm enough, I dehydrated it in a warm oven for a bit. I’m pretty sure Dad didn’t do that, but it seemed like a good idea. The parchment paper was absolutely a good idea.
What I can’t figure out is how Dad got the rice texture fine enough.
Is it in the soaking? My nian gao came out ever so slightly gritty. And I could have added a touch more sugar.(The tang yua’r dough was a total loss. It not only failed to hold together, it went sour.)
After cooling and curing a day or so, the nian gao was a solid, dry cake. I sliced it and fried it. Hot out of the pan it had the gummy, elastic chewiness I remember. It tastes like a houseful of noise and happiness.