Thursday was Chinese New Year so the year of the rabbit has begun! Happy New Year!
After leaving Hawaii for college, I went for many years missing Chinese New Years and only feeling faint regret that I had passed by the biggest celebration in Chinese culture without noticing. But now that I have children, everything has changed. Chinese New Year now symbolizes Chinese ethnicity, and I am always feeling slightly guilty for how little I impart of my culture and background to our three children.
Growing up, I rebelled against my parents shoving Chinese ethnicity and superiority down my throat. Which is probably why I married a white guy and have hapa-Haole children rather than the pure-breds I was told as a child I needed to produce. (My Chinese conflict with my parents is the subject of the memoir I’ve been writing for 8 years—someday hope to get it out there!)
But now, as the parent of 3 half-Chinese children, I want them to appreciate and be proud of their Chinese side, a challenging task when you live in a white suburb of Boston. It doesn’t help that a study on bi-racial child identity I read years ago while researching interracial friendships for my dissertation basically said there are 4 or 5 responses a child can have to being bi-racial. All but one are incredibly negative. The one positive outcome? Grow up in Hawaii where it’s actually more valued to be mixed-race than pure-bred, and where the culture has created a term for those kids—“hapa” which means half in Hawaiian.
Because moving home to Hawaii has been the impossible dream, I’ve tried to make Chinese New Year a more exciting and fun holiday in Boston to woo the kids towards healthy ethnic identity. I cook Chinese food for a week. I brave the parking nightmare in Boston’s Chinatown to buy nian gao (sticky cake) the quintessential Chinese New Year’s dessert because nian is a pun for sticky and year. Scott and I give them red envelopes stuffed with $20 bills and make them kow tow like I was forced to do as a child. I even googled the next decade of Chinese New Year dates and put them in my calendar so I wouldn’t forget.
Unfortunately, my Entourage calendar no longer works, which means I didn’t know when Chinese New Year fell this year. Luckily, my friend Tara invited me to a Chinese New Year’s party several weeks ago, so I was forewarned. And Tara, at half Finnish/half-Jewish isn’t even Chinese.
Two weeks ago, I happened to be near Chinatown with 2 kids and thought I’d better buy the nian gao because who knows with the snow when I’ll ever make it back?
A dense patty of sweet rice flour, sugar and oil, traditionally wrapped with a ti or banana leaf, nian gao is steamed for hours. When it’s fresh, it’s so sticky that a knife will only sink in and not cut, and you have to scrape it off your fingers with your teeth. As it ages, it gets harder and harder until it’s so hard you can barely cut it at all. When it was hard, Mama would slice it and pan fry the slabs. In the heat, the nian gao grows soft and sticky again, but also develops a delicious crunchy crust.
One year Mama decided to make her own nian gao, and spent hours upon hours steaming them to give away to her friends. All the windows in our house steamed up so that the paint peeled off the walls in our kitchen. Mama’s nian gao was very good, but the next month’s electric bill meant that was our one and only year of home-made nian gao.
Unfortunately, in Boston’s Chinatown, nian gao comes in a tin pan rather than a ti leaf, and it’s always hard when I buy it, which I find annoying. So last year, inspired by my mother’s example, I decided to make my own nian gao. I got her recipe and compared it with those on-line. I steamed that darn thing for 4 hours and it still hadn’t cooked, so I called home and found out the water had to be at a roiling boil the whole time. 6 hours later, I had homemade nian gao.
And the kids hated it. They said it didn’t taste right and was the wrong color—the result of using brown sugar instead of Chinese stick sugar that some of the on-line recipes said to use. Perhaps overwhelmed by the effort it took to make that nian gao, I forgot to give the kids their red envelopes. They didn’t get them until September. So last year’s Chinese new year was a bust, and they constantly delight in reminding me of that!
I can’t count how many folks have told me that they like Chinese food, but just don’t prefer Chinese desserts. This even includes fellow Chinese-Americans. One, a gourmet dessert chef, says it’s because the Chinese never invented ovens, so our desserts are limited to what you can steam, fry or boil.
My kids were part of that nay-saying crowd for a long time, but I’ve finally converted their taste buds. They were ecstatic about going to the Chinese bakery, and even more ecstatic when I allowed them to buy almost everything they wanted. $48 later, we left with a large nian gao and lots of Chinese treats—egg tarts, coconut mochi, “footballs” (what we call ham sui gok which is like a sesame ball with savory fillings instead of sweet), mooncakes, banana rolls.
We devoured the treats, but I protected the nian gao, wanting to save it for Chinese New Year. It was hard when we bought it, by Chinese New Year’s Eve it was somewhat cracked and I had to use my weight with my giant chef’s knife to slice it.
We brought it to Tara’s Chinese New Year’s Eve party, which included many Chinese international students. I fried it like my mother, and all the Chinese students had no idea what I was serving them.
“It’s nian gao!” I told them, “We ate it every Chinese New Year in Hawaii!”
“Oh,” they said, nodding politely, “Hmm. Back home nian gao is white. I think this type is Southern tradition.” Turns out, these students coming from all over China, had different Chinese New Year’s food traditions, and nian gao wasn’t one of them.
But when they tasted my nian gao, now softened with the heat and crunchy on the outside, everyone was delighted—it was delicious, and they devoured it all.
Which meant that by Chinese New Year’s day, I had no nian gao. With the 3 snowstorms that have hit since our Chinatown trip, there’s no way I was going to brave parking downtown, so I decided to make butter mochi, which is about the world’s easiest recipe. I just couldn’t face steaming a nian gao for 8 hours only to have it rejected because I don’t have the right kind of sugar. I think butter mochi is a Japanese/Hawaiian concoction, not authentically from any culture, but since it uses sticky sweet rice it’d suffice for a “sticky cake.”
The kids liked it more than traditional nian gao. I fed it to my staff team, who also loved it—and most non-Chinese who try nian gao will only take a small taste (I’ve brought it to numerous kindergarten Chinese New Year’s parties and always go home with almost the entire cake). The butter mochi was gone after a day, so I baked another one last night.
And in our Chinese/Scottish/Hawaii/Maine/Boston household, it probably makes sense to serve Japanese/Hawaiian butter mochi to hapa-Haole kids on Chinese New Year!
1 box mochiko or sweet (glutinous) rice flour, 1 lb.
2 cups sugar
1 cup shredded coconut
1 tsp. baking powder
½ cup butter (1 stick), melted
5 eggs, beaten
3 cups milk
1 tsp. vanilla
1. Mix dry ingredients together.
2. Mix eggs into butter, then add milk.
3. Mix wet ingredients with dry.
4. Either butter a 9 x 13 dish or spray it with Pam.
5. Pour batter into pan, Bake at 350 for 1 hour.
Note: You can buy Mochiko at any Japanese grocery store and at many Chinese or Korean stores. Otherwise, look for glutinous rice flour.