Staying true to tradition of fried nian gao

One couple stays true to the tradition of fried nian gao.

MALAYSIA - Gold cakes or nian gao are ceremonial cakes to many - I don't think I've met anyone who actually loves the cake, although many do tolerate it.

It's a sweet, brown and sticky rice cake that doesn't really have much taste - that's why the Hokkiens simply call it "tee kuih" or sweet cake. It's also not much to look at, being round and brown.

But sandwiched between a layer of taro and sweet potato, battered and deep fried, it's a different story.

One story goes that nian gao owes its existence to a tell-tale god residing in the kitchen. He would watch the shenanigans in the household and go up to heaven with his annual report to tell his boss whether you had been good or bad. Man who had been up to mischief devised a sneaky way to sway the report in his favour. Man asked wife to make a sweet and sticky rice cake and invited god to eat it just before he stomped upstairs ...

Another - more plausible - story I heard recently was that nian gao, which has a long, long shelf life, was a way to preserve food. Made of rice and sugar, it was instant fuel for long-ago man and could be carried on the go. There would also be no problems with animals trying to get man's food: When dried, gold cake is hard as rock - or shall we say gold? Rat would risk broken teeth trying to eat cake.

Being sweet, almost indestructible and golden, it has all the qualities of goodwill, longevity and auspiciousness. So today, the cake is on the ceremonial table and given away as a festive gift. It can be prettied up with an intricate red paper cutout stuck on top. The cake comes in all shapes and sizes nowadays - Chinese ingot, gold bar, flower and fish shapes. And if someone hasn't thought of it yet, it would be ideal as maneki-neko, the Japanese lucky beckoning kitty - you can then eat it if it didn't bring you luck.

There are only two - nice - ways to enjoy the cake: steamed until soft and rolled in freshly grated, lightly-salted coconut, or battered and deep fried. My favourite is to sandwich it between two slices of taro or sweet potato before dipping in batter and fried - it's the only time I lust for this nondescript Chinese cake.

Which brings us to the point of this story: Renee and Ah Kiong's perfectly made fried gold cakes.

This young couple has stuck to their guns to produce the cake the artisanal way, without additives or colouring. The fact that they make it all almost uniform in size and shape - and they do this manually by hand - wins further respect, considering that they are hawkers and not some star-rated restaurant with a battery of minions to help out.

The real test is, of course, in the eating experience. Bite into one of the fried gold cakes when it is still warm and molten gold lava oozes out. That is a gourmet moment when everything comes together: melting lava, fluffy taro, light and airy crispy batter, with a touch of savoury.

The gold cake is not too sweet and the batter is light with no apparent greasiness. It is as perfect as this cake can be, in my opinion - I have helped my mother make nian gao the traditional way as a child so I can appreciate how this is achieved.

Renee and Kiong

I first met Renee and Ah Kiong when they were operating in the food court next to the Imbi market. When the food court had to make way for development, R&K disappeared from my life.

And so did kuih bakul goreng - until a few years later when I decided to try to find them. Surfing the food blogs, I found praises for the fried gold cakes at Wing Heng (now Win Heng Seng) and Mei Sin restaurants in the Imbi area.

I was pleased to find R&K again at Mei Sin in Medan Imbi - they were also the ones selling fried gold cakes at Wing Heng on Jalan Imbi many years ago. Renee Teng, 33, speaks good English and has a cheerful disposition even when she looks a bit tired.

Her husband, Pon Ah Kiong, is 42 and works quietly in the background most of the time, and he doesn't stop working until the stall is closed. He always has a white China-made Good Morning towel around his neck for the sweat.

The business was started by Kiong's mother some 30 years ago after her husband passed away and she had to find a means of living.

She learnt to make the fried gold cakes from a lady in Penang - hence the cakes have a "Penang-style" batter coating.

Kiong started by helping her when he was seven years old and liked the job - he tried to operate a kopitiam at one point but that didn't work out so he went back to selling fried treats like gold cakes, sweet potato and taro, pisang goreng and red bean-filled sesame balls.

Kiong is a man who likes to do his own thing, and do it well, says Renee, and the one thing that he does very well is making fried gold cakes. It is a lot of hard work, but he does not mind.

"Not many people want to make nian gao the traditional way anymore as it is such hard work; now nian gao is made in factories, but it is not so good.

"We make it from scratch using glutinous rice so ours have a different texture and aroma," says Renee. She meant the molten, rather elastic character of real nian gao; factory-made ones often lack the tensile strength and flavour of the slow-cooked.

Even professional chefs in the city acknowledge the quality of their gold cakes and order from them for their restaurants. After all, it is not something that restaurant kitchens want to make, considering that they don't need huge quantities and making it well is an art best left to passionate experts like Kiong.

Typical day

Their day starts at 5.30am when they go to the Pudu market to buy bananas. Once or twice a week they go to the wholesale market in Selayang to buy taro and sweet potato - each time they lug home about 150kg of each.

The cut

By 7am, they are at the stall, peeling, cutting and sizing the taro, sweet potato and gold cake. Kiong is meticulous and patient. He insists on cutting all the slices to the same 4cm by 8cm dimension and slightly less than 1cm thick - the leftover cuts are collected by another hawker for other uses. Sometimes he joins the odd cuts to form a 4x8 when he assembles the "hamburger", as they call it.

The batter

Then the batter is mixed - a combination of rice flour, corn flour, baking powder and salt. Kiong experimented with many different kinds of flour before arriving at his final recipe. The fried cakes do not absorb a lot of oil and remain crispy even after two to three hours.

The fry

By 9am, Kiong heats up the huge wok of palm oil over the gas stove. It takes 15 minutes for the 18kg of oil to reach the right temperature. Kiong likes the Sawit Emas brand for its consistency and he is loyal to the brand.

He employs a double frying method to get a good crust. The assembled sandwich is held with tongs and dipped into batter and released into hot oil. About 12 "hamburgers" are fried at a go so as not to overcrowd the wok and keep the frying consistent. After five minutes, when the sandwich is set, he removes it and dips it in batter again for a second coating.

"The first coating does not stick well so I need to double up," explains Kiong. "Back it goes into hot oil for another 10 minutes, until it reaches a golden brown colour. Kiong does not take his eyes off the cakes while they are frying. When he fishes them out, each one is a beautiful golden brown cake without any burnt edges.

The golden cakes

The gold cakes are made once or twice a week depending on demand at their home in Sri Kembangan, Selangor.

Renee's mother lives with them and helps out with their two children and the business. They make four large trays measuring 30cm by 60cm each time, using 13kg of glutinous rice. Cake making day starts at 4am and ends at dusk.

Only three ingredients are needed to make gold cakes: glutinous rice, sugar and water. The rice is washed and soaked for 24 hours, rinsed again and then ground in a machine, 5kg at a time. Each batch takes five to 10 minutes. For 20 years before they got the machine four years ago, they sent the rice to the Pudu market to be ground. The ground rice goes into a cloth sack and a weight is placed on top for 30 minutes to press out the water. Then it goes into a mixer, sugar is added - in a 1:1 ratio - and this is mixed for 30 minutes.

The batch is then poured into parchment-lined trays.

"There is no need to line the trays with banana leaves as is the traditional practice as we make our cakes with sticky rice (and not flour) so it will have a fragrant smell," says Renee.

The cakes are steamed over high heat for one hour, then over medium heat for two hours.

The heat is turned up again and then reduced - this moderation goes on all day, with Kiong judging the needs by the changing colour of the cakes. After six hours of cooking, the white batter starts to brown and it takes about 15 hours of steaming to reach the right colour.

The leftover odd-sized bits of cake after the cutting are placed on top of the new cakes half way through cooking to recycle them. They melt in the heat and form a new seamless cake.

After cooling, the cakes are refrigerated to speed up the firming process. Out of the steamer, the cakes are molten and must be hardened to a state where they can be sliced with a knife. At room temperature, this process takes one to two weeks.

Despite the use of modern equipment and a time-tested methodology, nian gao making is still shrouded in superstitious beliefs.

It is still considered taboo to utter any cross words or express strong emotions when one is making it. Pregnant and menstruating women are also not allowed near the preparation area.

So Kiong does not allow Renee into the kitchen and often insists on working alone when he makes the cakes - maybe that is why Kiong has a somewhat pale, blank face devoid of expression most of the time. But when he does smile, it's a nice, happy smile.

For Chinese New Year, Imbi Fried Gold Cakes is closed from the first day to the ninth day. Individual gold cakes are also available for sale at the stall the week before Chinese New Year. There is a branch operated by a sibling at the Restoran New Seaview in Seapark, Petaling Jaya.