Ningbo on the coast of Zhejiang is the home to these chewy little slices of heaven called "rice cakes" or nian'gao, but I was completely unaware of them until I moved out of my Chinese family’s downtown home and into an apartment on the outskirts of Taipei with two American roommates.
We were within a stone’s throw from the airport, and in a few years the area would become very ritzy, but at the time it was cheap and ever-so-nicely rundown at the edges, making it great for three people on tight budgets.
Around the corner near the bus stop was a little place run by the sweetest man from Ningbo, and he was the one who introduced me to these stir-fried rice cakes. I soon invented all sorts of excuses for stopping in for a simple yet utterly delicious meal, and I inevitably did it when I was alone so that I could revel in all of the flavors and textures and aromas there without any distractions. This nice gentleman understood, and so he would serve me and then leave me alone in order to fully adore his food.
"Rice cakes" is one of those horrible translations that manages to supply all the wrong images, but there really is no equivalent in Western cuisine. Nian’gao like these are made of sticky rice that has been cooked, pounded into a paste, formed into batons, cooled, and then sliced.
If you are fond of mochi (and who isn’t?), you will like nian’gao, although these are firm and unsweetened and meant to be cooked again before being eaten. The name actually means "year cakes" because various forms of these rice pastes are traditionally eaten all over China during the Lunar New Year.
Nian’gao is fairly bland and offers only the natural sweetness of rice itself, so it serves as the perfect vehicle for whatever you want to match it with. When it is stir-fried as here, it will remain bouncy and chewy, and so things that are likewise bouncy and chewy are usually matched with it.
My favorite is the recipe here, a very vegan dish that is just amazingly delicious. The seasonings are juuust right, and the textures play off each other in a disarming way: the crisp bamboo shoots and nutty green soybeans getting a wonderful run for their money with the salted mustard greens called “red-in-snow” and good old green onions acting as a luscious backup, with the rice cakes bringing everything together.
Rice cakes with salted mustard greens, bamboo, and green soybeans
Xuělĭhóng sŭnsī máodòu cháo niángāo 雪裏紅筍絲毛豆炒年糕
Serves 2 as a main dish
Serves 2 as a main dish
3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
|Frozen shoots & soybeans|
4 green onions, trimmed and chopped
1 small bamboo shoot, fresh or frozen and defrosted, cut into julienne (about 1 cup)
1 cup shelled green soybeans (edamame), defrosted
6 ounces (about 1 cup) chopped Salted Mustard Greens (xuelihong)
12 ounces (about 2¼ cups) sliced Ningbo-style rice cakes, the slices separated if necessary
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
1 cup filtered boiling water
1. Heat a wok over high heat and then add the oil. Toss in the green onions and stir them around to release their fragrance. Before they start to brown, add the julienned bamboo shoot and soybeans. Toss these in the hot oil for about a minute to heat them through and then add the pickled greens (be sure and cut up any large pieces you find). Toss these together some more for about half a minute, and then add the rice cakes.
2. After you stir-fry the rice cakes for a minute or so, pour in the rice wine and the boiling water around the edge of the wok, and then continue to toss the rice cakes until most of the liquid has been absorbed. Taste and adjust the seasoning, if necessary. Serve hot in bowls.