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The Kitchen God and Sticky Cake (Nian Gao, Steamed Chinese Fruit Cake)

Find out the history of this traditional New Years dish, and try a recipe.

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Nian Gao
wEnDaLicious/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

There are many traditions associated with the Chinese New Years season or Spring Festival. However, one important tradition takes place before the old year has come to a close. According to legend, one week before the Spring Festival begins, the Kitchen God returns to heaven to report on a family's behavior during the previous year. A negative report by the Kitchen God means a family will suffer from bad luck during the year to come.

Origins of the Kitchen God

In The Kitchen's God Wife, Amy Tan describes the legend of how the Kitchen God came to exist. Basically, a beggar named Zhang leaped into a fireplace to escape being seen by his former wife. His embarrassment came not from his reduced circumstances, but from the way he had mistreated her. His wife tried vainly to put out the fire, but was ultimately forced to watch her former husband's ashes fly up the chimney. Upon hearing the story, the Jade Emperor decided to reward the man for admitting to his wrongdoings by making him Kitchen God, charged with watching over everyone's behavior.

Not surprisingly given his important task, images of the Kitchen God portray him as a rather imposing figure. The narrator in The Kitchen God's Wife describes one given to her by her mother: "The man is rather large and is seated in regal splendor, holding a quill in one hand, a tablet in the other. He has two long whiskers, shaped like smooth, tapered black whips."

Feeding Sticky Cake to the Kitchen God

In order to ensure a favorable report from the Kitchen God, the custom evolved of feeding him Sticky Cake. According to different accounts this was either a bribe, or simply a means of ensuring the Kitchen God's mouth was too full of cake to pass on an unfavorable report. Sticky Cake is steamed (as are most Chinese cakes) and made with glutinous rice flour and dried fruit. Traditionally, Sticky Cake is made with peen tong a traditional Chinese brown candy that is available at Asian markets (the glutinous rice flour can also be found at Asian markets). The recipe below can be made with either peen tong or brown sugar.

Written by Rhonda Parkinson, 2001

Sticky Cake Recipe
3 1/4 cups (1 400 gram bag) glutinous rice flour
2/3 cup brown sugar or 2 slabs (about 5 ounces) Chinese brown candy(pian tang in Mandarin; peen tong in Cantonese)
7 ounces boiling water
1/2 cup Chinese dates, softened in water, cut in half, pits removed, or 1/2 cup other dried fruit or 1/4 cup dates and 1/4 cup nuts
1 tablespoon milk
Water, as needed
1 tablespoon white sesame seeds
1 tablespoon vegetable oil or nonstick cooking spray

Directions:
1. Prepare the wok for steaming.
2. In a bowl, mix the boiling water and the sugar, stirring to dissolve. (If using peen tong, break the candy into several pieces, so that it will dissolve more easily in the boiling water). Cool. Soak the Chinese dates in hot water for at least 30 minutes to soften. (You can also soften them quickly by placing them in a bowl with water and microwaving on high heat for 30 seconds). Cut the dates in half and remove the pits.
3. Place the glutinous rice flour in a large bowl. Make a well in the middle and stir in the sugar and water mixture. Add the milk and begin shaping the dough. Add 1 tablespoon of water to the dough at a time, until you have a smooth dough with a satiny texture. Incorporate 1/2 - 3/4 of the Chinese dates, nuts or other dried fruit as you are adding water and working with the dough.
4. Grease a 7-inch square cake pan with vegetable oil or a non-stick cooking spray. Place the dough in the cake pan and spread it out to the edges. Decorate with the remaining dates, lightly pushing them into the dough. Sprinkle the sesame seeds on top.
5. Steam the cake over medium-high to high heat for 45 minutes, or until the edges of the cake pull away from the pan. Remove the cake from the heat and cool.
6. Use a knife to loosen the edges, then remove the cake. Wrap in wax paper and refrigerate overnight.
7. To serve: Cut the cake into quarters, and then into thin slices 2 – 3 inches long and 1/4-inch wide. You can serve the cake as is, or reheat it in the microwave (the amount of time will depend on the size and power of your microwave – start with 10 seconds and then microwave an extra 5 seconds if needed) or re-steam it for 4 – 5 minutes.
You can also pan-fry the cake, dipping the cake slices in an egg wash before frying. Use a small amount of oil so that the cake will not taste oily. Heat the oil on medium-high to high heat, then turn the heat down to medium and brown the cake slices briefly on both sides.

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