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Traditional treat

Updated: 2013-02-13 11:30
By Wu Yiyao ( China Daily)

Traditional treat

Water-soaked rice is milled into a milky paste that flows into a cotton-cloth bag, in the first step in making rice cake. Provided to China Daily

With a history of 2,000 years, rice cakes bring both palatable and visual pleasures, Wu Yiyao reports.

Surely few staple foods are as versatile as nian'gao, or rice cake, a must-have during Spring Festival in East China.

From appetizer to soup, from main dish to dessert, sticky and chewy white rice cake offers delectable celebratory diversity thanks to its amenability to any shape of mold.

However, Zhang Jianchang, head of Ningbo Grand Bridge Ecological Farm in Zhejiang province, one of the largest farms with a rice cake mill, says each step of making rice cake brings about multi-facet beauty of the delicacy.

"A well-preserved rice cake may last hundreds of days; the best time to taste it, however, is always straight from the steamer, before it is shaped," said Zhang.

Ningbo, a coastal city, is considered the birthplace and one of the best places for rice cake. Archaeologists have found the cultivation of round-grained rice, the key ingredient for rice cake, has a history of more than 5,000 years in Ningbo, and historical accounts trace rice cake in the area back 2,000 years.

Ningbo rice cake comes in a mind-boggling variety of sizes, shapes and colors.

The color is important, as rice cake is often eaten on festive occasions. Rice cake is usually white when cooked in soups on the lunar calendar's New Year's Day, which is considered a day with a lot of yangqi, as white symbolizes positive energy associated with such qualities as brightness and warmth.

But on some occasions, you will come across rice cake in another color, such as red.

Red is believed to be an effective means of scaring away nian, a legendary beast that comes out at the end of a year to eat people, preferably children. Rice cakes with red stamps were regarded as a powerful talisman against the nian and other goblins and malignant spirits, and stewed with red beans and other sweet ingredients, a bowl of rice cakes helped people endure the winters.

Slices of rice cake are also used as bricks in tabletop towers, which people believe bring peace and good luck when eaten. Many families eat rice cake in the shape of a fish dyed like a rainbow with edible colors in the hope that the rice cakes will bring a "good catch" in the coming year.

Cicheng has a museum that displays the tools and manufacturing processes used to make rice cake, which is the only museum of its kind in East China.

"Rice cake is deeply ingrained in day-to-day activities of Ningbo people all around the world, and the museum is a nice place to share the feelings of this group," said Wang Hui, a guide at the museum.

No matter how a piece of rice cake is fried, baked, toasted, steamed, stewed or grilled, the white glutinous ingredient must first undergo a process that may take up to three days.

Harvested rice is soaked in a huge water tank until it is soft enough to be milled without much effort. Water milling takes at least two people - one to grind, the other to add water to the ground rice until it becomes a milky paste that flows into a cotton-cloth bag. Squeezed rice paste is then put into a bowl in a wooden container and steamed.

As the milky paste turns pink and gradually becomes transparent, it becomes gaohua, "the blossom of cake".

"When I was a kid I often stole gaohua from the steamer as my parents did not notice, for me the gaohua is the essence of rice cake. It is sweet and juicy, which made it worth the pain of getting a beating if I was caught," said Liu Qishou, a 65-year-old resident in Cicheng in north Ningbo.

Liu has been making rice cake for six decades. Liu said steaming the gaohua is art of timing.

"If it is heated too long, it becomes too wet to be shaped, but if the heating time is too short, the sweetness cannot come out," said Liu.

After the steaming comes the beating. Again, it is two-person work, with one person pounding the gaohua with a wooden or stone hammer, while the other adds cold water to the hot paste and turns it.

"Physics and chemistry tell us the process changes the molecular structure of rice, which makes the rice easier to digest. In my eyes, the morale is that without a beating one does not become mature," said Liu An'guo, the 18-year-old grandson of Liu Qishou.

The beaten rice paste is then put on a chopping block, hand-squeezed into small balls, and kneaded into a roll. To get the traditional look of Ningbo rice cake, a mould is pressed onto the roll and red stamp pressed on the shaped cake.

"It is hard to tell how many recipes have developed over the centuries. I bet there must be thousands of them. One thing, however, is certain, rice cake is friendly to other ingredients. It is never too dominant or too compliant - it maintains the fragrance and taste of rice, but is open to other flavors," said Wu Qinfeng, a rice cake stall owner in Cicheng.

"My favorite recipe is easy, if not lazy: Just put sun-dried rice cake slices into burning charcoal until it expands like popcorn. The aroma and the color are irresistible", said Wu.

Contact the writer at wuyiyao@chinadaily.com.cn

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