Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Tung Kui or Nien Gao

I read in the Star how an Indian man each year would make thousands of nien gao for sale and this part time ibusiness of his is a booming one. I am glad thatan Indian can make a niche for himself in the Chinese community, and provide part time employment for more than forty people before Chinese New year. This is a good example of real supply and demand in Samuelson's classical economic schema.

Nien Gao is Chinese New Year must-have It means every year we achieve higher. In Miri, there is a figure 3099 (Samling Gao Gao) which is sported by Samling Company. It indicates that Samling goes higher and higher. Therefore the sound Gao is a good sound to the Chinese ear.

According to Chinese legends,this sticky sweet snack was believed to be an offering to the Kitchen God, with the aim that his mouth will be stuck with the sticky cake, so that he can't badmouth the Chinese family to the God of all Gods (Yu Huang Da Di). Nowadays, the Chinese can easily buy their Nian Gao from the supermarket, but may still choose to cook it traditionally.

The sweet sticky cake doesn't usually get consumed completely during Chinese New Year period, due to the overwhelming choices of other food. So we often have loads of leftover of the cake. We'll wrap it up and keep it in the fridge for future use, for example fry it up, or steam it for a snack.

Each year my family will retell tales of Chinese New year experiences when we get together. And this is one related to nien gao.

My grandmother's house in Ah Nang Chong, Lower Southern Village, was a typical Foochow house with the kitchen jutting out at the back of the house. Actually the kitchen was a separate unit, and it was linked to the main house by an open verandah,where we had our all night long story telling sessions. The verandah, called "lang nor" in Foochow, also acted as a sitting room. This is in fact an ingenious piece of architecture, most probably invented by the Foochows and was a safety facility idea.

My mother's eldest sister in law (Tui Ging)was a keen cook and she decided to make a lot of nien gao for the new year, to be given out as gifts to her close relatives. So she had herself prepared with lots of wood for the stove, lots of flour and sugar.
Having finished tapping rubber, and processing it, she started her work on the nien gao and in no time, the nien gao was ready for steaming. She steamed batch by batch into the early hours of the morning. And she had already been up and about for twenty four hours. At that time, the kitchen was lit only by a small kerosne lamp called "tu mah giang", as it was fuel saving. In the bed rooms, we had a small kerosene lamp, and in the living room or langnor, we would have a pressure lamp. The Yamaha generator was invented then.

My aunt was a child bride and all her life she tried her best to please her in- laws. She did not have the luxury of having an education but instead she had to rear pigs, chickens, cook, tap rubber, carry water from the river, wash clothes by the river side, raise a huge family of two girls and six boys(without family planning) and get along well with a huge extended family.

She was a loving wife,mother, aunt and sister. Life was truly a challenge to her. But towards the last two decades of her life, her family was able to buy a good house in Sibu and they became town folks with all the amenities to make her life easier. Foochow women in the past were often classified into those who had good fate and those who had bad fate. And most would like to be in the category of having good fate towards the later part of their life. So many would say that my aunt fell into this category.

After many hours of steaming, the last batch was in the kuali for steaming.She unfortunately dosed off . A fire broke out in her kitchen but luckily someone was awake and saved the kitchen from being hurt by a Chinese New year fire. My poor aunt was fast asleep. AT that time, alarm clocks were only used for waking up to tap rubber, not in the kitchen for nien gao making!!!! Sixty years later,today we are blessed with Tefal steamers which have built in timer.

Also, if there had been a fire, the verandah would have been literally hacked off to save the main house from the fire. This was the safety valve.

Everyone took it humourously and we had lots of nien gao to eat. There was only a slight damage. No harm done!! Four families were living together in this house with my grandmother. One can imagine how horrifica it might have been. All was forgiven. All the more reason to celebrate because of the lucky escape!!

(I hope my cousins will forgive me for retelling the story here.)

Here's the recipe for nien gao

Ingredients: (Makes 4-5 10 cm nien gao)

Cooking time : 8 hours.

250 g glutinous rice flour, sieved
250 ml water
280 g brown sugar
A few bamboo or banana Leaves, run over flame to drive out the moisture (but not burnt)
4-5 10 cm-width round baking tins
Some hemp strings
Few layers of muslin cloths (or aluminium foil)

Mix glutinous rice flour and water into a smooth paste. Add in brown sugar and mix well till sugar is diluted. Leave aside while preparing the containers.
Line tins with bamboo or banana leaves (make sure it is cut to a size that has excess on the top and can be folded down to wrap around the edge of the tin). Secure the lining with the hemp strings.
Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Turn heat to low.
Pour the paste mixture into the tins, and steam over the boiling water in the pot on low heat for about 8 hours. Securely wrap the lid with muslin cloths so that the water condensation will not drip into the cakes.

The New Year Cake will turn into reddish brown colour when cooked. Alternatively, wait till it is cool to get it out of the tins.

The better stoves to use for making this nien gao are the simple Chinese kerosene stove, and the huge Foochow wood stove. The huge Foochow kuali, which is quite rare now, can contain 10 to 15 litres of water for steaming three layers of bamboo steamers. So at one go, you can make at least 24 nien gao.

This year the going price is RM 6 for a small round piece. The price has really gone up.

Tip : place a china spoon in the boiling water through the steaming process, so that you can tell that the water has not dried up (the spoon in the boiling water knocks against the inside of the pot and make continuous noise).

1 memories:

leong said...

Ever wondered we locals never erect any momuments for the White Rajas? One reason is they killed too many people here to establish and keep their presence here.
Thousands were killed in many massacres. At Batang Ai, for example, they killed 800 Dayaks. At the so called Being Marau sea battle, they killed 1000. The worse massacre happened when they put down the so called Chinese Rebellion. for only 4 whitemen killed, the retaliation was horrible. Over 3,500 men, women and children were dead. Sarawak's best secret is now told in detail in my book: The White Rajahs ... Myths Retold; the massacre of the Bau Hakkas.
In it you would also find out that the White rulers governed Sarawak like a human zoo. To the Dayaks, they never provide any school, road, clinic, electricity, radio or telephone. Time stood still for them The first Dayak radio program only appeared in 1957. During their reign, the white rulers obtained over half of the yearly revenue from these vice products: opium, arrack, gambling and pawn.
- Desmond Leong


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