January 23, 2012

Chinese New Year: Photos and Neen Gow

Gung Hay Fat Choy!  Happy New Year and welcome to the Year of the Dragon!

Yesterday was a really busy day for us, not only because it was Chinese New Year's eve but, truth be told, there was a important football playoff game!  So between cleaning up the house and preparing a special dinner, I was also designing fun game day munchies (more on that next week) and keeping our eye on a close match.  I figured our family would be so full of snacks from the late afternoon game that I decided to only prepared a couple of dishes for our New Year's meal.  (Good call.  We had TONS of leftovers.)  I kept it simple and stuck to lettuce cups and glass noodles, main dishes that worked well for us last year.

I did make one new thing this year, New Year's Cake (called nian gao in the dominant Mandarin dialect, or neen gow in Cantonese, which is Sarah's and my family's dialect).  Neen gow is made as an offering to the Kitchen God, who observes your behavior and helps determine if you have a prosperous new year.  Another explanation on why we offer this treat:  the sticky cake will keep the Kitchen God's mouth so occupied, he will be unable to report back on anything at all (bad or good)!

Neen gow is not your ordinary cake.  It uses glutinous rice flour and steam to create a mochi-like, gummy cake.  (For those unfamiliar with traditional Chinese desserts, they are typically less sweet than Western desserts and often use beans or rice.)

Making neen gow was really easy!  I bought my ingredients at a local Asian supermarket.  The rice flour should be easy to find there in most Asian markets -- make sure it's "glutinous" because you'll find out that there are quite a few different options in rice flours.  If you cannot find brown sugar pieces, you can easily substitute the readily available regular brown sugar.  In fact, it might be easier.  It was time-consuming to try to break down the hard pieces in the liquid.  The water-coconut milk combination I used was delicious but you can also replace the water with more coconut milk for an even richer flavor.

For the steaming, I used a huge stockpot and a metal wire stand to elevate my ramekins over one inch of water.
The neen gow mixture before steaming
While people usually prepare a big feast the night before Lunar New Year begins, there are fifteen days of celebrating.  Let the long party continue with your own new year's cake!

Steamed New Year's Cake (Nian Gao or Neen Gow)

1 cup full-fat coconut milk
1 cup water
16 oz. bag of glutinous rice flour
1 package of brown sugar pieces or 2 cups brown sugar (I used 4 of the 5 pieces in the package)
Dried fruit, sesame seeds (optional)
  1. Heat coconut milk and water over stove or in the microwave.  Add brown sugar.
  2. Dissolve brown sugar in the liquid making sure the completely break up any hard pieces.  This took a bit of time but after a while, the pieces absorbed enough liquid so that I could break them up with a potato masher!
  3. Remove pan from heat.  Slow stir or whisk in glutinous rice flour into water-coconut-sugar mixture.  
  4. Once ingredients are well combined, pour into a well-greased 8-inch pan or six greased 4-inch ramekins.  Add a dried piece of fruit (a pitted plum is common) in the center of pan if desired.
  5. Steam mixture over medium heat for 1 to 1.5 hours or until neen gow starts to pull away from the sides of its container.  Remove from heat and let cool.
  6. Drizzle with sesame seeds if you desire.  For easier cutting, refrigerate before serving.  Slice before serving.

The finished product after 1.5 hours of steaming
We hope the Year of the Dragon has started off well for your family.  Enjoy the renewed hope and remember, no sweeping today or you'll sweep away your good luck.  Woo hoo!  A break from cleaning!

A pre-New Year's trim, new red car shirt, and lucky money --  Callan had a great start to the Year of the Dragon!


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