Yesterday was the 7th day of the Chinese New Year of the Ox which is known as ‘everybody’s birthday人日’, the day when everyone grows one year older. When I was in Hong Kong, we will say Happy Birthday to our friends, family and colleagues. You must be thinking that the Chinese New Year has so many rituals and celebrations and you are absolutely right, if I have to follow strictly the rules, there are many things that I have to abide and follow but in the modern days, most people will only follow selectively.
A major difference to the Western New Year, the Chinese New Year lasts the whole of first month 正月 of the lunar calendar. The first fifteen days are the most important. And within the first month, it is very important that no one in the family is allowed to buy any shoes, this is because shoes in cantonese sounds like sighing and we don’t want to sigh for the rest of the year. If you are interested to know more about the things that symbolize good luck or bad luck to the chinese especially in the Lunar New Year, wikipedia has listed quite many of them.
For growing kids, the Everybody’s birthday is particularly meaningful and my mom used to pan-fry Nian Gao (年糕)and Turnip Cake, (literally translation: Lo Bak Gao 蘿蔔糕) in the morning for breakfast.
‘Gao’ in Cantonese pronounces the same as the word ‘height’ – 高, and by eating these chinese savoury cakes, the kids are blessed to grow faster and taller (年高). And what about adults, it also symbolize the business sales will grow more and more each day and month, the stock market index will go higher and higher, and you will get a job promotion. With all these meanings, that’s why these chinese cakes are so important in the Chinese New Year!
Nian Gao is mainly made from Glutinous rice flour and brown sugar, these days most people will not make their own anymore, as there are available everywhere, and time is very precious in particular in Hong Kong and most people are too busy, if your mom or grandma are still willing to make them for the family, you should be extremely grateful, this is because although the ingredients for making Nian Gao are very basic, brown sugar, glutinous flour and oil, the skill is all that matter to make it successful.
This year, I was given one as a gift from my friend Carman which was not too sweet, just right for me. It was so good that I could make a live demonstration and explain the meaning behind to my family here.
Niao Gao (before panfried)
How to prepare nian gao:
- cut the cake into slices
- whisk an egg in a small bowl
- Heat up a flat pan or wok to medium high heatand add a little cooking oil
- coat the nian gao by dipping the slices of nian gao into the egg
- place them to the pan one by one and
- pan-fry them immediately until they turn soft and slightly crispy on the outside
- serve immediately with some chinese tea (to help digestion)
Chinese Turnip Cake, Lo Pak Gao 蘿蔔糕, is my all time favorite, you can find this all year round in Dim Sum restaurants. Yet, you can never compare with homemade ones, as they are far more tasty than the commercial ones, the ones in the restaurants usually are rather stiff and do not have enough turnips and taste too floury.
In Hong Kong, my dad makes the best, I remembered that the family and friends liked them so much that he went and made many of them one year to give them out as gifts, but because of all the grating and chopping requires a lot of work & time standing, my dad ended up a very bad backache. We then limited him to make three cakes only the following year and only those who made New Year visits (拜年) will be able to taste my dad’s turnip cake.
This year, I dare to make it for the very first time with my visiting friend, Carman. It was a fun cooking session for us, our turnip cake turned out perfect despite we burned a little the bottom of the mixture but we were able to rectify instantly and not being affected by it. I was so happy with the results that I had to call my parents to report our success, the turlip cakes were not too hard nor too soft. Both mom and dad said we were talented enough to be successful for the first time, as although there are so many recipes out there, a lot of people claimed this is challenging to make a good one. I hope I can be repeat and be successful next year!
How to make Homemade Chinese Turnip Cake (Lo Bak Gao, 蘿蔔糕):
- 3 white radish (other names: chinese radish/ turnip or daikon) ~ 1.75kg for this time
- white rice flour 350g
- white radish : rice flour (5:1)
- chinese sausages臘腸 (mix of pork ones and the duck liver ones, usually available only in Winter)
- dried chinese mushrooms or shaiiake mushrooms
- dried scallops
- dried shrimps (optional)
- handul of shallots
- a bunch of coriander
- approx 350ml chicken stock
- 2 -3 tbsp corn starch dissolved in little cold water
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 tsp sugar
- pinches of white pepper
- Hydrate the dried scallops, dried mushrooms and shrimps in separate bowls of hot water for a few hours, finely chopped
- Cut the chinese sausages into thin slices or small cubes (both are fine either way)
- Finely chopped the shallots
- Separate the leaves and stalks of the coriander, cut the stalks into small pieces
- Coarsely grate the white radish, set aside
- Heat up a wok or frying pan at medium high heat, add in the chinese sausages, stir-frying for a few minutes, you will see some oil will come out from the sausages (like the bacon), you can then gradually add in shallots, mushrooms, scallops and shrimps, keep stir frying them for a few minutes until they are semi-cooked.
- Boil the chicken stock in a deep pan of another wok if you have available, and add in the grated radish, keep stirring and cook until the radish is soft and transparent.
- Stirred in the chinese sausages mixture and coriander stalks into the cooked radish.
- Turn off the heat, wait for a while about 5-10 mins, and pour in the rice flour and corn starch, keep stirring and then add in the salt, pepper, sugar. By this time, you will result to have a half cooked thick paste. Funny enough the rice flour can dissolve directly to the mixture without pre-dissolved in water but do prepare some cold water aside to adjust the paste where necessary, this part is the most important to get a correct consistency.
- Generously oil 2 baking tins and transfer the paste mixture to cake baking tins (you can use the disposable aluminium ones too)
- Steam each tin/ tray for an hour at high heat first, when the water is boiling turn to medium heat.
- When it is cooked, remove from heat and sprinkle the coriander leaves on top as garnish.
- Let the cakes to cool down completely before turning them to large plates.
- Cut into slices and panfry until slight brown and crispy on the outside. Serve with XO sauce or chili sauce if preferred.
- You can also cut a portion in small cubes and stir fry with some bean sprounts XO sauce, I learnt it from the restaurant served as a contemporary dim sum.
- Alternatively, if you want the panfried ones too heavy, I like cutting big cube and reheat by steaming it and pour a little dark soy sauce on it.
Step 9 is very critical and was where we did wrong, we were worried that the rice flour would not dissolve properly and thicken to a paste, so we heated it up again and all of a sudden we discovered that it was beginning to burn. And when I talked to my dad, this was almost the first thing he asked if I have done. I wish I had talked to him beforehand but luckily we solved this by not stirring too hard to the bottom.
Enjoy and happy birthday to you all!