COMING from a third generation of nian gao makers who have perfected the art of making the sweet and sticky glutinous rice cakes, Joyce Choo certainly takes pride in making one that is ‘flawless’.
The 35-year-old of Baba Nyonya descent may speak little English, but when it comes to explaining in detail the ingredients required to make the perfect nian gao, how long it would take to make one and ways to improvise its making process, she could do so fluently, albeit in Malay.
Above all, Joyce is also a stickler for details and a staunch believer in ‘taboos’, where a perfect setting is needed for a perfect cake.
“The four taboos that must be adhered to are there should not be any quarrels in the house, those attending funeral should not visit, there must not be anyone asking what you are doing and females who are menstruating should not be around.
“Breaking even one of these taboos would create a shrunken cake, not fully baked and devoid of the delicious taste of glutinous rice.
“Nian gao is a prosperity cake, which is a must during Chinese New Year. It also brings good luck and as such, we must follow certain traditions during its making process, ” she said when met at a fried glutinous rice cake demonstration stall at the Chinese New Year national open house at the Esplanade in Penang recently.
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.
Joyce said the process in making a perfect glutinous rice cake would usually take 20 hours, and another two weeks to solidify the cake.
“It can then be kept in the freezer for up to a year.
“We had to make about 10,000 pieces of the cake, kuih bahulu, kuih kapit (love letters) and kuih bangkit (tapioca cookies) over the last 48 hours for the event today. It was an arduous task, ” she added.
At the demonstration, Joyce and her sister Jane were making nian gao fritters, where slices of the cake were sandwiched between slices of yam and sweet potato before they were dipped in batter.
They were then dipped into hot oil and deep fried to golden brown perfection.
Other demonstrations at the event organised by the National Visual Arts Development Board were stone art, paper cutting and Chinese calligraphy among others.
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