Recipe: Ningbo ‘Niangao’ Rice Cakes
Happy Year of the Snake everyone! 恭喜发财，万事如意！I hope you’ve all enjoyed a reunion with family and friends, filled with good food and cheer.
This is one of the rare times of year when the streets of Shanghai are practically empty. The factories are shut down, traffic disappears, and for a week, its as if time itself stops. Its eery and strange, and I love it. Despite there not being a soul in sight, there seems to be no shortage of ear-splitting firecrackers on auto-erupt, all day and into the night. Not only does it ward off evil spirits, I’m sure it wakes up the dead as well.
Chinese New Year is for families, and every year millions of Chinese make the pilgrimage back home to 团聚 or reunite with family and loved ones. Food is always the main event, and for my family in Sichuan, the meal is anticipated and preparations begun days and weeks in advance. My grandparents always have dried, cured meat and sausages hanging outside their windows ready to be sliced and served as charcuterie or stir fried into dishes.
Growing up abroad it was rare for us to spend CNY in China with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, so my parents and I made our own traditions. My mom, whose parents are from eastern China in Zhenjiang, would over the years start cooking in a cross polinized Sichuan-Jiangsu style, using less spice in favour of lighter, sweeter flavours. We always had a feast, there was always steamed fish. As the saying goes 年年有余, ‘may you have surpluses and bountiful harvests every year’. The 余 rhymes with 鱼 which means fish, so of course, fish is eaten every year.
Other staples include dumplings, chinese sausages, and niangao. These are dense, al dente rice cakes that originated from Ningbo, where they are still made by hand in some towns, but have spread across China and are widely considered an indispensable new years dish. They can take the form of different shapes, like fish, dyed different colours, eaten as is, sweetened in a dessert, or sliced and stirfried with meat and vegetables.
The process of making niangao is laborious and time consuming. Ripe white rice is soaked, steamed, ground up, pounded and kneaded for hours before they take their form as stiff white rolls of rice cakes. The excellent documentary A Bite of China 舌尖上的中国 features traditional niangao making on Episode 2, the staple foods. (I highly recommend watching the entire series, unfortunately the subtitles are weak but there is no official English translation) Hand made niangao are becoming harder to find as the art is no longer passed down from older generations, but this delicious, chewy food is still bringing together communities and families every year for that one joyous meal.
Savoury, stir fried niangao are super simple to make. You can substitute different ingredients according to your preference, and it tastes delicious!
I found these handmade Ningbo ricecakes in my local grocery store in Shanghai, we’re only 1.5 hours away from Ningbo so its quite fresh. Rice cakes are sold in most Chinese grocery stores in North America, usually in dried format near the noodles, but sometimes fresh and refrigerated. They can come in long cakes, or presliced, like mine pictured below.
Depending on if they’re fresh or dried, you may have to soak them in water for 1-2 nights before they are ready to use.
1. Don’t forget to soak the rice cakes and shiitake mushrooms accordingly! Fresh shiitakes can be used as well, but the dried depart stronger flavour
2. Shred all the vegetables and have them ready to cook. Heat up the wok with 2 tablespoons oil until sizzling and add in the bamboo, preserved vegetables and mushrooms. Stir fry for a minute and then add in the bok choy. Season with soy sauce.
3. Add in the rice cakes and toss to prevent anything from sticking to the wok. Now pour in the broth, cover the wok and let the mixture simmer. This should take between 5-7 minutes, but do keep an eye on the wok.
4. Taste to ensure the right texture for the niangao, they should be al dente and chewy. The stock should have given it enough flavour but if necessary add a little bit more soy sauce.