Sticking to tradition

Teh steaming the nian gao in a giant wok at his family home in Jelutong, Penang.

WHILE the art of making nian gao is seemingly becoming rare over the years due to its laborious process, a family in Penang still maintains the tradition of making the sweet and sticky glutinous rice cake.

The close-knit family of Teh Khooi Sian uses the occasion as bonding time during the festive period to make the traditional delicacy, one of the most sought-after items during the Chinese New Year.

Teh, 63, said he and his family carried the practice of making nian gao throughout the year and not just during Chinese New Year period.

“On normal days, we make them in rectangular sizes and distribute them to pisang goreng stalls in Penang. A transparent type of paper, the similar kind which is used to steam herbal chicken, are used to line the metal cans before the mixture is poured in for nian gao made on normal days.

“However, during Chinese New Year, banana leaves are used instead. We start making the nian gao for the festivities two weeks before Chinese New Year,” he said in an interview on Tuesday.

Teh and his wife Tan Kun Eng, 56, are retirees who used to operate a pisang goreng stall opposite the Heng Ee High School in Hamilton Road.

The couple retired two years ago but continued making the nian gao.

“It’s been a family affair (making the nian gao) where the whole family is involved. Our three children and occasionally our nieces helped us.

“We started making nian gao after my best friend shared his recipe with me. From then, I started expanding the business until today,” he said, adding that the family makes the nian gao from their home in Jelutong.

Teh, who has been making the delicacy for over 20 years, said nearly 380 nian gao are produced per day, and the delicacy is distributed to most of the markets in Penang.

“They are sold in four different sizes between RM4 and RM13.”

Teh noted that the ingredients for making nian gao were white sugar, water and rice flour.

“The flour, which has been soaked, are then kneaded with the sugar and water before the mixture is poured into metal cans wrapped in smoked banana leaves and steamed for 14 hours in a giant wok.

“The best texture of nian gao comes with more than 14 hours of steaming. It also comes with years of experience in controlling the fire.

“We work from as early as 5am to 10pm every day to produce the nian gao. It may be a lot of hard work but it’s important to uphold the tradition and culture,” he added.

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.

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.

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