Known as tikoy in the Philippines, nian gao is a traditional Chinese New Year dish. Why it is so has many aspects. One account has it that it is an offering to bribe the Kitchen God (a reference in Amy Tan’s The Kitchen God’s Wife) who reports everyone’s behavior to the Jade Emperor. Another interpretation is that “nian gao is a homonym for ‘every year higher and higher’.”
Nian gao is made with glutinous rice flour, sometimes steamed and, at other times, cooked in a pan and stirred until thick. It may be savory or sweetened. How it is served varies from region to region. It may simply be pan fried, stir fried with meat and vegetables, dropped into soups or made into a pudding.
This is how we prepare nian gao at home—sliced, dipped in beaten egg and pan fried until the egg coating turns lightly browned and crisp. This method of preparation is not something I concocted—this was how my grandfather prepared nian gao and it was by watching him that I learned.
Take a sharp knife and wipe lightly with cooking oil. Position the knife on top of the nian gao and press down. Don’t cut using the sawing motion; otherwise, the cake will stick to the metal. The ideal thickness is 1/4 to 1/2 inch. My personal preference is on the thickish side. You may have to wipe the knife with oil repeatedly until you have sliced the whole nian gao.
Start heating oil in a wok or frying pan. This isn’t deep frying. You want just enough oil to reach a depth of about half an inch.
Dip each piece of rice cake in beaten egg.
Fry the nian gao in batches. The temperature of the oil should be somewhere between medium and low. What you are aiming for is to allow the rice cakes to soften in the heat before the egg darkens too much.
Flip the nian gao to brown the other side.
Drain the cooked nian gao on paper towels and serve immediately. If you cooked them correctly, the rice cakes should be soft and sticky while the outside is golden brown and crisp.