Large, medium and small: Teo arranging kuih bakul at her home in Penang.
GEORGE TOWN: Making nian gao may be an arduous process, but clerk Teo Hooi Oon always looks forward to preparing the sweet and sticky glutinous rice cake every Chinese New Year.
The traditional delicacy, which the 38-year-old part-time kuih maker mastered over years of observing her grandmother and mother, holds a special place in her heart.
“My mum would help my grandmother to make the delicacy. As a little girl I would watch them until I was old enough to help.
“It’s what bonds us together as a family,” she said at her home in Lintang Macallum, Penang, where she has been making nian gao for the past 10 years.
Her neighbours and friends, as well as those from outside Penang, have become regular customers after learning of the family’s tradition of making the delicacy.
Nian gao, also known as thnee kuih in Hokkien or kuih bakul in Bahasa Malaysia, is among some of the traditional cake offerings at the altar during Chinese New Year.
“It symbolises the attainment of higher status and some believe the higher you stack the nian gao, the more prosperous you will be.
“Depending on their preference, some people would stack three, five or eight nian gao on top of another, from the largest to smallest in size.
“As nian gao is auspicious-sounding and sweet, it is also given as a gift,” said Teo, who added that nian gao is customary for the annual sending-off of the Kitchen God a week before Chinese New Year, when the deity ascends to heaven to present a yearly report on the households to the Jade Emperor.
Teo explained that she would first soak rice flour before grinding it, and then mixing it with coarse sugar.
“After that, my father, who is in his 60s, helps me with the kneading of the flour and sugar together,” she said, adding that for every batch, 10kg of flour is used.
The mixture is then poured into metal cans of small, medium and large sizes wrapped in smoked banana leaves, and steamed in a giant wok for 24 hours.
“The mixture will slowly turn from milky white into dark brown before the cans are taken out and left to cool for a few hours,” she said.
Teo started making the nian gao for this year on Wednesday, and is expected to stop a couple of days before Chinese New Year.
“During this period, I sell them at the Macallum Street market and also cater to orders,” she said.
Besides nian gao, Teo also makes and sells huat kuih (prosperity cakes) and ang ku (red tortoise cakes) at the Cecil Street market every 1st and 15th day of each lunar month.