Nian Gao means “sticky cake” in Chinese, but is more commonly known as rice cakes. I remember this dish being a staple at every Chinese potluck party I went to as a kid. Glistening with a coat of sesame oil, a big ceramic bowl would emerge from the microwave, reheated, its contents steaming and amorphous. Simple to make ahead and reheat, it’s also quite a filling dish, sticking to everything it adheres to, your teeth, roof of your mouth, your ribs, and then your gut. Not fatty nor even heavy, nian gao are made from ground-up glutinous rice. They are then shaped into “ovalettes,” or at least that’s what you’ll find on the packaging at most Asian markets.
This dish is the savory version of making nian gao, but around Chinese New Year, there’s a sweet cake-like variety that’s given from family to family, with many probably being re-gifted. It would be the Chinese equivalent of fruitcake. You may have seen it at the store, it comes in a large, dense round, oftentimes, colored maroon or red, always in a vacuum-sealed bag. The store-bought versions are disgustingly sweet; I much prefer the homemade ones made by our family friend (she adds red beans and sometimes mung beans), steamed or friend, then sliced and dipped in sugar.
This has always been a comfort food for me, sticky and warm, with the perfect balance of sticky rice, vegetables and meat. My family doesn’t eat too much of it, since it’s more of a Southern Chinese dish, from the Shanghai region. When heated in the wok, the nian gao slowly melt and give way to the rest of the components of the dish, beautifully melding everything together with its release of starches. If you’ve ever had Korean dduk (the thick rope-shaped rice cakes), you’ll know what I’m talking about. Nian gao are basically the same thing, just flatter from being sliced on the bias from a similar rope shape.
Typically nian gao is stir-fried with some type of cabbage (most prefer Napa), pork, bamboo shoots, and shitake mushrooms, but you can also use other greens like bok choy, mustard greens, or Chinese broccoli.
Stir-fried Nian Gao
2-3 cups nian gao slices, fresh (frozen) or dried
4 cups Napa cabbage, chopped into 1″ wide pieces
2 carrots, peeled and cut into 1/4″ slices
5 shitake mushrooms, sliced
1/4 lb pork tenderloin, cut into 1/8″ slices, then slivered
2 Tbsp Shaoxing cooking wine
1 Tbsp minced ginger
1 clove garlic, minced
3 Tbsp oyster sauce
2 Tbsp soy sauce
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp ground white pepper
1 1/2 Tbsp sesame oil
vegetable oil, for stir-frying
1. The night before, soak nian gao in cold water. Drain well the next day just prior to using.
2. Heat 2 Tbsp of oil over high heat in the wok, and cook the pork with 1 Tbsp Shaoxing wine, half the ginger and garlic until no longer pink. Remove and set aside.
3. With wok still heated, add 1 Tbsp oil. Over high heat, cook the cabbage, carrots and shitake until the cabbage starts to wilt, about 2 minutes. Stir in the nian gao and cook to desired consistency, about 3-5 minutes. Along with the nian gao, add in the reserved pork, remaining Shaoxing wine, ginger and garlic, oyster and soy sauce, sugar and white pepper. Just before serving, stir in the sesame oil over medium heat. Serve immediately.