Sugar Talk Sugar Talk
Chinese New Year: recipes to celebrate the Year of the Ox
As part of our new series focusing on sugar applications from across the globe and, ahead of Chinese New Year tomorrow, we have detailed some of the recipes that form part of the festival’s traditions. Many Chinese New Year dishes are sweet, rich and bright, and pure sugars and syrups play an important role in developing these qualities.
A festival that promotes fortune, prosperity, health and longevity
Chinese New Year is the festival that celebrates the beginning of a new year on the traditional Chinese lunar calendar, with 12 February seeing us move from the Year of the Rat to the Year of the Ox. Foods – and pure sugars – play a vital role in the traditions of this festival, holding important symbolism that aims to bring luck, prosperity and longevity over the new year.
The festival itself is well-known in many countries across the world and is celebrated by approximately one sixth of the world’s population. But while the festival is relatively well-known, there is an important point to remember about its food and cultural traditions. China is one of the largest and most populated countries in the world. So much so that many of its provinces are, in fact, much larger than some of the biggest countries in Europe. As a result, the festival’s foods vary across provinces, with each province having its own unique traditions.
Furthermore, it is also worth noting that many regions within China were traditionally farmland. So, while modern recipes embrace a diverse range of ingredients and cooking techniques, many traditional recipes make use of limited ingredients and cooking methods.
Below, we have outlined some of the most recognisable Chinese New Year sugar applications. Follow them to help you celebrate the Year of the Ox at home.
Nian gao is considered synonymous with the festival, with its name even translating as ‘year cake’. It is a rice cake with a sticky and dense texture, which is often given as a gift to loved ones as a wish to increase their prosperity for the next year and all the years to come. It is traditionally produced in a round shape to symbolise togetherness and wholeness, linking to the festival’s tradition of family reunions.
Several brown sugars are used in Nian gao recipes.
A range of crystalline sugars are used in Nian gao recipes, depending on the province the rice cake originates from. In addition to soft brown sugar and muscovado sugar, this includes raw cane sugar. However, it is less likely to include demerara. For this recipe, though, we recommend light cane muscovado sugar. When used in Nian gao recipes, it acts as a binding agent that contributes to the cake’s consistent sticky texture, as well as giving the cake its toffee-like flavour and brown colour.
A basic Nian gao can be produced with just three ingredients: glutinous rice flour, water and the sugar constituent of choice. First, add light cane muscovado sugar to a pan of water and let it simmer. This should not take long as light cane muscovado sugar’s fine grain size enables it to quickly dissolve in the simmering water. Once the sugar has dissolved in the water, pour it into a bowl with the glutinous rice flour and mix. Stir until smooth and then pour into a pan, before steaming it for up to four hours.
It is worth noting that some regions also produce savoury versions of Nian gao, which are saltier and typically fried with other savoury food, such as eggs, sweet potatoes and pork. Across different cuisines, this may be fried, boiled or steamed, and can be served as a cake, in a soup, or as the savoury element of a meal.
Fa gao is another dessert that is typically consumed as part of Chinese New Year traditions and, like Nian gao, its name translates into something relevant to the festival – in this case, ‘prosperity cake’. In essence, it is a small, pale pastry that resembles a cupcake.
Fa gao is traditionally produced using rice flour, yeast and sugar, but more contemporary recipes often substitute yeast for baking powder and use plain flour instead. Again, this cake was traditionally steamed as fuel was often expensive or hard to come by in some parts of historical China.
Modern takes on fa gao often include additional colourings but maintain the characteristic split top.
Soft brown sugar is the most widely used sugar ingredient in fa gao recipes, with both lighter and darker varieties proving popular choices depending on the producer’s desired end result. We favour the latter, as its high molasses content develops a richer flavour and adds moisture to the cake.
First, dissolve the dark soft brown sugar in a wok with simmering water. Take off the heat, and once the syrup has cooled, mix it with the flour and baking powder in a bowl until it is smooth. Then, whisk into a batter and transfer it into paper-lined ramekins. Finally, steam the cakes over high heat until they rise and split to give their characteristic appearance of overflowing with abundance.
Apple and banana fritters with golden syrup
While not synonymous with Chinese New Year traditions like the above recipes, some say that the golden appearance of fruit fritters represents wealth and prosperity for the coming year.
Golden syrup enhances the crispy outer layer of fruit fritters, contrasting with the soft cooked fruit inside.
They are also an incredibly easy dessert to make, ideal for cooking at home for children. First, sift flour and bicarbonate of soda in a bowl. Then, add water and mix until a smooth batter forms. Next, coat the choice of fruit in the light batter and fry in oil until golden brown and crispy. The final and most important part, of course, comes when golden syrup is drizzled on top of the fritters, with the distinctive mellow flavour of the golden elixir complementing the crispy texture of the hot fritters.
Some producers also serve the fritters cold, with the golden syrup coat acting as a binding agent for sesame seeds, which is said to represent good fortune and longevity.
Fah sung thong
In Chinese culture, peanuts are considered to symbolise longevity and sesame seeds good fortune. As a result, both feature in several traditional Chinese New Year foods and are combined in this recipe.
Fah sung thong is a peanut and sesame brittle that is quick and easy to make, which was both inexpensive and readily available in historical China. So much so that it has long been available to purchase by the metre in local shops. Some fah sung thong recipes include black or white sesame seeds while others forego the seeds altogether. Furthermore, the number of chilli flakes and spices included also depends on the producer.
A simple but energising treat, fah sung thong contains peanuts, sesame seeds, dark soft brown sugar and spices.
This is another straightforward recipe. The first step is to lay the peanuts on a baking tray before covering with sesame seeds, chilli flakes and five-spice powder and roasting in an oven. Then, heat dark soft brown sugar, vinegar and water in a saucepan until the sugar has dissolved, and bring the pan to the boil so the liquid becomes a syrup. Finally, pour the syrup on top of the ingredients in the baking tray and add extra sesame seeds and five-spice on top. Remember to cut the peanut candy before it cools completely, and then enjoy.
So, while Chinese New Year celebrations will be somewhat subdued this year, we hope these recipes help you replicate the festival at home.