Friday, January 31, 2014

Ivy's Nian Gao

Happy New Year, everyone!

I hinted that another Ivy post was on the way, and here it is! Today marks the start of the Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year, and celebrations will be going on until February 15th. Chinese New Year starts on the first day of the Chinese calendar - which is lunisolar - and ends on the 15th day of the first month. This year is the year of the Horse, which I'm sure Kaya and Felicity are thrilled about, and while we don't celebrate the holiday in this household, it's very culturally important to one of the American Girls so there was no way we were going to pass this by.

Nian gao is also known as year cake, or Chinese New Year cake, and I will admit, the recipe sounded super intimidating at first! It turns out as long as you're willing to make the time commitment (and it is a big one!), it's totally feasible and can make you feel like a real culinary MacGuyver!

Ivy is Julie's best friend, which means she only has one book told strictly from her point of view and is a major supporting character in Julie's main series. Her most significant appearance in Julie's series is in Happy New Year, Julie!. Half the story focuses on Julie's disastrous first Christmas with her newly divorced parents and her grumpy older sister, who feels that their father divorced them, not just their mother. The other half details Julie celebrating Chinese New Year with Ivy and her family, who invite Julie's whole family to the first night of the celebration. Julie's sister and their father make up while visiting with her old neighbors, and Julie ends the book feeling positive about the year ahead of them, bolstered by the lessons she's learned from the traditions of Chinese New Year.

Once again, I wish that Ivy was given more time to shine on her own, and honestly, I almost feel like a variation on what they did with Marie-Grace and C├ęcile could have been successful here. Ivy is definitely an interesting enough character to be able to carry her own series, and I often find myself wishing we could have more information about her and her family than AG has given us thus far.

And for some reason, the illustrations of her New Years Dress don't match the illustrations in Good Luck, Ivy! or the doll dress? What's up with that, AG?

Chinese New Year isn't just celebrated in China. Apart from the United States, Taiwan, Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and others host significant celebrations, both from their large ethnic Chinese population and also from the holiday's influence on their own lunar calendar celebrations. Although in modern day, only a few days are usually considered an official holiday, the celebration historically is the longest one in the Chinese calendar. Families clean their houses, settle debts and arguments and decorate their homes with flowers and wishes for the new year. Red is considered to be a particularly lucky color to wear, and children are given red envelopes of money from their relatives as another way of bringing them luck in the coming year. Families get together for large dinners and communities celebrate with festive parades featuring characters from Chinese mythology.

Nian gao is one of the dishes traditionally eaten at Chinese New Year, and it's one of the oldest foods in China (historians in China have found preserved samples that are almost seven thousand years old!). It's considered lucky because it's name is a homonym for "higher year" in Chinese, which means eating nian gao symbolizes growing taller (improving your life) in the coming year.

There are two myths associated with nian gao. The first is the myth that details the beginning of Chinese New Year itself: in ancient China, there was a creature called the Nian, which would terrorize villages during the winter because most of the other animals it hunted were hibernating for winter. After living in fear of being devoured by Nian for years, a smart villager named Gao came up with the idea of leaving out pastries for it overnight to discourage it from eating his neighbors. It worked, the village adopted the policy of leaving out pastry for Nian and then celebrated their survival the next morning. They chose to name the dish after the monster and the man who created it! The other myth involves the historical figure Wu Zixu, a prime minister of the State of Wu in ancient China. He oversaw a wall around the capital of Wu, and told the king's eunuch that if people in the city ever went hungry, he hid a store of rice pastries under the wall. When the city was attacked the following year, they dug beneath the wall and discovered the pastries and have made the dish ever since to honor Wu Zixu and celebrate the new year.

It's not mentioned as one of the dishes the Lings serve at dinner, but Ivy's grandfather Gung Gung tells a New Years specific variation of the Nian legend in Happy New Year, Julie! to his family and the Albrights, and the book includes an illustration of Nian (spelled Nien) for readers who aren't familiar with the legend.

It's on page 58, for the curious.

The recipe I used is from and is described as being the traditional steamed new year cake. There are actually several different varieties of nian gao, with different regions offering their own interpretations, additions and variations of the dish. This one seems to be more typical of the Guangdong variety, and like I said at the beginning, the recipe seemed both pleasantly simple and terrifyingly intimidating.

Actually, the first problem we ran into was finding sweet rice flour. I'm starting to appreciate why people who need or choose to live gluten free have such a tough time finding good substitutes, because several employees of various grocery stores looked at me like I was insane when I asked if they carried any. The obvious first choice should have been the Chinese market in the city, but between busy schedules and snowy conditions, I was reluctant to head out that way unless I had to.

Fortunately, I did get my hands on all the ingredients and was definitely interested to see where this went, because I've never had to cook with any of them before.

The one I was more curious about was the Chinese brown sugar, since I'd honestly never even considered there being a difference between how sugar is packaged from region to region.

Chinese brown sugar is also sold as brown candy, so if you're ever looking for it but can only find this, don't worry, you've found the right thing.

This goes into a pot with two cups of water over medium heat, and it takes quite a while to break down. I wasn't really paying close attention to the clock, but it was pretty brainless work.

The rice flour goes in a stand mixer. I've never used ours before - it's a fairly recent addition to our kitchen - and was pleased to discover it wasn't that difficult to use. That said, it was hard to get a picture of me dumping stuff into the rice flour, so pretend you witnessed the sugar, oil and almond extract getting added to the rice flour.

The batter goes into a nine inch cake pan, and this is where things got interesting.

Since I didn't have a bamboo steamer, I had to jury rig a steamer with aluminum foil. It was actually pretty simple to do, which was fabulous because I was a little intimidated by it.

You pour in about an inch and a half of water, and you're basically good to go once you get the cake pan on top of the foil with a lid over it.

Which apparently I forgot to photograph, but I promise there was a lid here.

Now at this point, it's taken about twenty minutes to get all this together, mostly just because dissolving the sugar took a bit of time. This might trick you into thinking this is a recipe that doesn't take all that long to make.

You're wrong. Like, I won't try to lie.

This has to steam for three hours, and you're supposed to check on it on the hour and also periodically to make sure all the water hasn't burned off. That wasn't too much of a problem for me this time, although I did put a little extra in each time I checked on it just to be sure. The major color change seemed to happen between the first and second hour, but the second picture is pretty much what it looked like when I finally took it off the stove.

You immediately put on sesame seeds and dried Chinese red dates, which taste a lot like regular dates, but they're red. And I don't like them particularly, but I'm pretty sure that's just how I feel about dates in general.

You're supposed to let it cool until it's at room temperature, but I think I might have tried wrestling it out of the pan a little too early. I say this because it took my mom and I an embarrassingly long time and an embarrassingly large amount of tools to pry this thing out of the pan because it was so sticky. Of course, as soon as we got it out and it cooled off more, it became a lot easier to work with, so this was obviously a case of my impatience getting the best of me.

So at this point, I would imagine most of my readers who have never had this before are wondering what on Earth this tasted like, because I know I had very little idea of what to expect and honestly, I was kind of prepping myself for this to be one of those dishes where people try a piece and then politely compliment the blog or my culinary daring while trying to convince a cat or a houseplant or something to dispose of the rest of it.

As it turned out...

My mom really, really liked it! My brother not so much, but honestly he's a little weird about what he will and won't eat when it comes to sweets, and also everything. It tastes pretty similar to a kind of Japanese rice candy we enjoy eating, and the texture is sort of almost like edible clay or putty, or maybe just a gummy bear. It's sweet without being too sweet, and overall, I'm pretty pleased with how this worked out.

We've got a ton left over, and I have no idea how much of it is going to get eaten between now and whenever we decide to toss it, so I think this recipe is a great thing if you know you're going to have a lot of people around to help you finish it off versus just a small group of people who aren't as into pigging out on desserts as you might like them to be. You store it in the fridge with some saran wrap and it can keep for a few days like that, and apparently a lot of families fry up leftovers so the middle gets all nice and gooey again because apparently it will get pretty hard once it's a day or two old.

I hope everyone who celebrates Chinese New Year has a really great one, and that everyone who doesn't hopefully learned something from this post. I know I sure did! I never had reason to cobble together a steamer out of stuff you have on hand in the kitchen before, and I'm glad I know this little trick in case I ever need to steam something in the future.


  1. Wow this looks really interesting!

    1. Interesting is definitely the word for it! I've been giving the leftovers to a bunch of people and the feedback has been generally positive, so I'm very pleased. c: