Tasty treats, and useful when the monsters come
Dumplings have long been equated with the Spring Festival, both as a culinary and cultural symbol.
Made of a flour wrapper and various fillings, dumplings are a staple in northern China. One origin of the dish is traced back to the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220), when Zhang Zhongjing, a physician, writer and inventor, created dumplings as a remedy to fend off the coldness with ingredients like lamb and peppers wrapped in flour sheets.
Programs like the Spring Festival gala on state broadcaster always emphasize the tradition of eating dumplings to celebrate Spring Festival, but in reality, not all places in China do so and the ceremonial food selection is much broader.
Rice cakes are one of the common Spring Festival dishes consumed across China. With the pronunciation of niangao, which implies “getting higher year by year,” the sweet cakes made of rice or glutinous rice symbolize growth in all aspects of life, like a child’s height, a prosperous business, better grades in study and promotions at work.
An ancient tale of rice cake’s origin centers on a monster called nian, a predator that lived in deep forests all year long.
From spring to fall, nian preyed on other animals, but when the cold winter arrived and other animals went into hiding, nian would come down the mountain and eat people.
To solve this problem, a clan by the family name Gao prepared a large quantity of squared grain bars and placed them outside their doors.
People hid in their houses and waited for nian to come. When nian couldn’t find any people to eat, it started to eat the grain bars and left when it was full.
Then the people would come out and congratulate each other for escaping nian safe and sound. The method was continued year after year and gradually people named the grain bars niangao, after nian the monster and gao the clan that defeated it.
As a food, rice cakes have a long history in China. “Shi Ci,” a cookery book from the sixth century, includes a recipe for making rice cake known as baijiantang (白茧糖):
“After steaming the glutinous rice, pound the rice into a cake, cut into the size of a walnut and air dry. Deep-fry the cakes in oil and coat with sugar when served.”
Rice cakes are associated especially with Jiangnan, the region south of the Yangtze River, where rice is the dominant staple.
Jia Sixie, author of “Qimin Yaoshu,” a book of agricultural texts, from the Northern Wei period (AD 386-534), recorded another rice cake recipe that uses ground rice flour instead of steaming the rice directly, which is more like modern rice cakes. After grinding the glutinous rice and sieving, water and honey are added to form a harder dough. Jujubes and chestnuts are stuck on top, and they are wrapped with indocalamus leaf and steamed until fully cooked.
An early record of eating rice cakes during Spring Festival was found in “Yun Xian Za Ji,” a book from the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), which mentions “eating yulianggao on the 15th day of the first lunar month.”
The word niangao appeared for the first time in “Gu Su Zhi,” a chronicle of the Suzhou region from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), where rice cakes were a dominant festival food.
In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Suzhou families would start to prepare rice cakes after the Laba Festival, which falls on the eighth day of the 12th lunar month. Rich families hired rice cake makers to make their own batches at home.
The long, thin rice cake was often offered to the servants as gifts, while the ones with the shoe-shaped gold ingot form were gifted to friends and family.
On the second day of the second lunar month, families in the countryside would fry and eat the leftover rice cakes from the previous year known as chengyaogao, or back support cakes, because eating that certain dish on that day was said to treat backache.
Just like other foods, rice cakes are made and cooked in different ways across China.
The Shanghainese rice cake often adds lard and sweet osmanthus flowers to create a smooth, sweet and sumptuous flavor.
The famous Chongming cake is also a food for the Spring Festival, made by grinding rice and glutinous rice to form a dough, then adding a generous amount of toppings including jujubes, raisins and walnuts before steaming.
Ningbo in Zhejiang Province is famous for rice cakes and related dishes which are also traditional Spring Festival foods. Here, the rice cakes are made of wanjingmi, or late grain rice, which is sowed after harvesting the early season rice in late June and reaped in November.
In order to achieve a sticky texture similar to glutinous rice, the rice must go through several essential procedures. After soaking in water for seven to 10 days and before it’s put into the steamer, it must be milled first, hence the name shuimo niangao, or water mill rice cake.
The fine and smooth milled rice flour is then steamed fully on a high heat. The hot mixture is then smashed in a stone mortar, a key step that makes the rice sticky. The task must be completed by two people. One smashes hard with a wooden pestle, the other stirs the hot rice flour with cold water.
The rice cakes are often savory and cooked in stir-fries or soups in Ningbo. Signature recipes include rice cake and shepherd’s purse stir-fry, gazami crab and rice cake stir-fry and rice cake soup with green vegetables and shredded pork. There’s also the sweet rice cake with osmanthus sugar sauce.
In Cicheng, an ancient town in Ningbo known for rice cakes, there is a museum dedicated to the staple where visitors can learn all aspects of rice cake making, cooking and history.
Beijing-style rice cakes, which inherited the imperial court traditions, are an eyeful with different shapes and ingredients. They are often displayed as articles of tribute.
The rice cakes can be topped with crushed nuts, preserved fruits as well as honglusi, or red and green shreds, a candied and colored filling made of the peel of tangerine or radish. They also have sweet fillings inside, like red bean paste, jujube paste and hawthorn.
The rectangular rice cake from Xinyang, Henan Province, is as hard as a brick. The size of a palm, it’s usually sliced into strips, fried and served with granulated sugar.
The Chaoxian ethnic group has a tradition of making rice cakes in fall and winter, which are known as dagao, or beaten cakes. The staple is a festival celebration food for Spring Festival and also a tribute to the gods when the people host worship ceremonies in the third lunar month.
Making dagao is really hard work. One must hammer the cooked glutinous rice in a wooden basin until a mushy texture is achieved, then move the mixture to a stone board and smash with a hammer even more into a pancake, while others help to arrange the shape of the rice cakes. Dagao is ready to eat after sprinkling on some soybean flour, sugar or honey.