I have been very busy preparing for Chinese New Year, which will be this Sunday. There is shopping, cleaning and cooking, and cooking has taken up most of my time. Since I last wrote about shopping for dry goods, I have completed my shopping for the wet goods–meat, vegetables, fruits and other perishables for making my rice cakes and sugar rings for snacks and tea, as well as the New Year Eve’s dinner.
Chinese New Year Cake (Nin Go in Cantonese) is a must, whether you make it yourself or buy it from the shops. We make different kinds of rice cakes (Go). The ingredients are very simple and they are mostly steamed and not baked. One has to trace the roots of all this to the agrarian society in ancient China where affluence is the exception rather than the rule. My husband’s and my family come from southern China and we try to follow what we were exposed to when we were growing up, but the Canadian version is bound to be simpler, because we do not have the manpower to do everything. We make Nin Go and not dumplings, which is a northern Chinese tradition for the New Year. One significant feature in cooking for the New Year is the symbolism–the name of the food or its ingredients have to be auspicious. Call it culture or superstition, as long as the food is tasty, I am fine with it.
Let’s start with my Nin Go. The word Go is a homophone for “high” in the Chinese language. So the cakes are called Go, because anything that rises or is high (be it your salary, your rank, your grade or even the stock market) is supposed to be good. I use glutinous rice flour, coconut milk and rock sugar. Rock sugar gives a subtle sweet flavour to the cake.
I dissolve 450 g of sugar in 2 cups of boiling water and leave it to cool. I put 1200 g of glutinous rice flour in a big bowl and make a hole in the middle. When the sugar-water is ready I pour it slowly into the flour and stir/knead the batter. I add 2 Tbsp of vegetable oil, add 800 ml of coconut milk and continue to stir. The liquid will have a consistency of condensed milk. I brush my baking tins with oil, pour the batter in, and steam for two hours (for a 8″ cake tin).
In the meantime, I start to prepare the savoury rice cakes, for which I use plain rice flour. The ingredients for the turnip cake and the taro cake are very similar. They both require Chinese sausages and preserved belly pork, dried shrimps, scallion and parsley.
While the dried shrimps (4 oz for both cakes) are soaking in water, I peel the skin of the turnip (1.35 Kg), and the taro (1.35 Kg). I shred the turnip and dice the taro into small cubes. For each of the cake, I also need 3 Chinese sausages, half a stick of preserved belly port and 3 scallions, which I dice into small pieces.
I fry all the ingredients except for the turnip and the taro, and divide them into two halves for later use respectively. With the turnip, I cook the shredded turnip in 2 Tbsp of oil until soft, add 1 tsp of salt and 1 tsp of white pepper, and pour the rice flour in, stirring vigorously while I add about 3 cups of water until the batter is evenly mixed.
I grease two molds and put the batter in. They are ready for the steamer. The Go is ready when the side moves away from the mold.
I fry the taro pieces briefly and pour the other ingredients in. I add 400 g rice flour and mix it well with 3 1/2 cups of water. The batter goes into greased molds and they are now lining up in my kitchen to be steamed.
I also prepare Red Bean Cake and Water Chestnut Cake. They are a lot easier to make by comparison. I boil 170 g of dried red beans in 4 cups of water until they are soft. Add 200 g of sugar and 100 g of all purpose flour. I stir the batter until the beans no longer sink to the bottom before putting them into greased molds. As for the Water Chestnut Cake, I just follow the recipe that comes with the box of water chestnut flour.
All the Go has to remain in the molds until they are fully cool before I tip them over onto serving plates or do the decorations. I decorate the cakes with dried red dates, goji berries, sesame seeds and some parsley. Red is the auspicious colour for Chinese New Year and seeds are a symbol of life.
Traditionally, Chinese New Year also comes with other sweet goodies such as fried dumplings with red bean paste and sesame balls. My mother and my aunts used to spend the entire day sitting in front of a huge work to do the deep frying. My version is the coconut sugar rings that I make by deep frying a batter with a special mold I bought in Singapore many years ago. I use my deep fryer for making fries. This is a very labour intensive endaevour, but the result which comes out like a gold ancient coin always pleases the crowd.
All this has taken me two full days to prepare, but I am that happy that the food is ready to be brought to the family gathering on Sunday. Whatever I have not cooked I have bought from the supermarket. Now I can tend to my other household tasks.
Disclaimer: The ingredients and cooking methods are based on my personal experience cooking for large family gatherings. They may vary if applied to smaller servings the recipes for which I have not tested and therefore I cannot be responsible for the end results.