New year sticky sweet cake

Nin gou decorated with auspicious red-colour
Chinese character for prosperity
 
Every lunar new year season, you will see smooth brown-colour tubs of nin gou (Cantonese) or glutinous rice cakes among the attractive lunar new year cakes and cookies sold in shops and festive stalls.  That’s because this new year cake is an auspicious item used by traditional Chinese for lunar new year celebrations.  In any Chinese dialect, its name nin gou literally means “year cake” while most Malaysians are familiar with kueh bakul, the way the Peranakan call it.

I was browsing in a shopping mall when my attention was caught by traditional nin gou that were still in metal tins lined with banana leaves.  As the young man promoting these cakes told me that they are made by his mother from his father’s traditional recipe, my thoughts raced back to memories of how a grand-aunt used to grind glutinous rice on a traditional millstone grinder for the flour to make these rice cakes.  While we can conveniently buy glutinous rice flour off the shelves now, there was a time when homemade rice cakes were made by sheer passion and raw effort, starting with grinding glutinous rice on a traditional millstone grinder to make the glutinous rice flour from scratch!

Homemade nin gou still in metal tins
lined by banana leaves
 
The Chinese like to attach auspicious meanings to words and phrases and are particularly careful with each utterance at the start of the lunar new year to ensure that good fortune will follow in the year ahead.  When we were kids visiting relatives during lunar new year, I remember being warned not to say the word, “die” or risk being severely disciplined.  My wild imagining of punishments like getting my mouth washed out with soap or raw chilli rubbed on my lips, certainly kept my wayward tongue from saying anything inauspicious.

The sound of the word, nin gou, is also synonymous with the Chinese words for “year higher”, an auspicious phrase for sending good wishes for higher achievements and success as well as increasing abundance and prosperity in the coming year.  These glutinous rice cakes are traditionally made in thick round tins but may also be shaped into ingots and usually presented as gifts, decorated with an auspicious red-colour Chinese character for “fatt” meaning prosperity.

Nin gou are an auspicious item for the lunar new year
 
Only three ingredients – glutinous rice flour, sugar and water – are used to make this steamed new year cake.  Some families have their own recipes like adding a pinch of salt to enhance the taste or spreading a dash of vegetable oil on the banana leaves that line the metal tins before the batter is poured in.  This traditional cake, if properly prepared, can keep for more than a year without refrigeration because back in ancient days, refrigerators have not been invented yet. 

In some traditional recipes, the steaming time can be up to 10 to 12 hours over a charcoal or kerosene stove and the bubbling sugar as it caramelises, is a unique fragrance that connoisseurs of nin gou truly appreciate.  The special sweetness of the glutinous rice cake is why the Hokkien and Peranakan call it ti kuay which literally means, “sweet cake.”  When it is cooked, the cake is usually left to cool and settle for 2 to 3 days before they are lifted out of the tins.

This cake is now available all year round as some hawkers sell them as snacks deep-fried in a delicious sandwich between a slice of yam or sweet potato.  Eating nin gou is an acquired taste because it is not only sweet but can also be very sticky.  After the cake is cooled, it solidifies into a slab and can be easily sliced into squares.  The only true fan of nin gou in our family however, is dad who is happy to slowly nibble the solid slices especially while watching television. 

Nin gou squares dipped in egg batter and lightly
pan-fried by mum for afternoon tea!
 
Around the lunar new year season we usually prepare nin gou squares, dipped in egg batter and lightly pan-fried, for afternoon tea.  Another method to savour nin gou is to steam the cake slices and toss them in shreds of lightly salted young coconut to make a tasty dessert that resembles kueh kosui.  The glutinous rice content in this cake can cause the consistency to be seriously stretchy and sticky for people who wear dentures so please be warned if you are going to sink your teeth in this sticky steamed cake!

In the days before the dawn of the lunar new year, traditional Chinese families go about cleaning their home thoroughly to sweep out all the ill luck and make room to welcome in good fortune.  Families that practice Taoism or Buddhism will clean their homes and kitchen altars and replace with new items and decorations.  A week before the first day of the lunar month, nin gou and sweets like sugar-coated peanuts are offered to the Kitchen God before he leaves for heaven. 

As the recorder of the family’s conduct, the Kitchen God has an annual trip to heaven to report on that family’s good or bad deeds in the past 12 months.  As a tradition, the nin gou and sweets are offered as a bribe so that he will make a favourable report to the God of Heaven.  It is believed that when the Kitchen God eats the nin gou, his mouth will be clamped shut by its stickiness and he will not be able to make a bad report about the family! 

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 30 January 2014

Serving of deep-fried nin gou at home of Datin Ong Kid Ching
 
Check out the slice of nin gou sandwiched between a slice of yam [top] and sweet potato [bottom] - Yum!
 
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