SINGAPORE - For many Chinese families, nian gao is a must during Chinese New Year. The Chinese name for the sticky rice cake, made traditionally from glutinous rice flour and brown sugar, literally means "year cake" but is also a homonym for "higher year" - in other words, a better year ahead.
For Taoists, it has another significance. I remember my mother offering nian gao to the Kitchen God a week before Chinese New Year because the deity is believed to depart for heaven on that day to report on what he has observed happening in the household the past year. The sticky cake supposedly seals his lips so he can't say anything bad about the family, only sweet things.
These days, you find many versions of nian gao. Some are made with coconut milk and do not keep well.
But old-fashioned nian gao can keep for months. It can be eaten pan-fried on its own, or sandwiched between slices of sweet potato and yam and dipped in batter. Or steamed and rolled in grated coconut.
Because I can eat only one or two small slices at a time, I prefer to have it in restaurants during the Chinese New Year, when it is served as dessert. A number of restaurants also come up with novel recipes to make it more interesting.
For 2019, these are the best I tasted.
1. Deep-fried Chempedak "Nian Gao"
Where: Min Jiang, Goodwood Park Hotel, 22 Scotts Road, tel: 6730-1704
Open: 11.30am to 2.30pm (Mondays to Saturdays), 11am to 2.30pm (Sundays), 6.30 to 10.30pm (Sundays)
This looks like chempedak goreng and not nian gao. But buried inside that crispy, golden nugget is a dollop of nian gao.
I like that the chempedak is blended into a paste, so that while you get the full flavour of the fruit, you can also bite through the nian gao easily. It's almost impossible to bite through chempedak flesh otherwise, and I usually just chew it until my jaws tire out and then swallow it whole.
It's available for only dine-in though, as you have to eat it freshly fried.
The restaurant also offers a Chilled Durian "Nian Gao" Roll and a Pan-fried Yam And Pumpkin "Nian Gao", which are good too.
The trio costs $32 for nine pieces, $42 for 12 pieces and $52 for 15 pieces.
2. Baked Yam Paste "Nian Gao" Tart
Where: Jade Restaurant, The Fullerton Hotel Singapore, tel: 6877-8911
Open: 11.30am to 2.30pm, 6.30 to 10.30pm daily
Jade Restaurant has offered nian gao tarts for Chinese New Year before, but this year, the chef has added orh nee (yam paste) to the mix.
The bite-sized tart pastries are half filled with a layer of yam paste, then topped with nian gao.
Pop a whole tart in your mouth to savour the delectable combination of flaky pastry, yam and mildly sweet rice cake. You probably won't stop at one.
They cost $7 a pair for dine-in and $30 nett for a box of nine for takeaway.
3. Eternal Bliss Platter
Where: Select Crystal Jade outlets, go to estore.crystaljade.com to order
When: Collect by Feb 19
This comes as a combo of five savoury and sweet cakes. The red date coconut cake is the standout here.
Though not a traditional nian gao - that is in the combo too - this looks like one. The taste of red dates is obvious, but adding coconut milk gives it a totally new character and makes it more like an aromatic nonya kueh.
The other flavours in the pack are carrot cake, yam cake and osmanthus chrysanthemum cake. These are pretty good too, so I have no complaint about them being included.
The platter costs $38.80 and you need to order three days in advance.
4. Tung Lok Nian Gao
Where: Available at all TungLok outlets except Tong Le Private Dining, Ruyi - Chinese Fast Food, Dancing Crab and Slappy Cakes, tel: 6337-2055 (for bulk orders)
Open: Various timings, go to www.tunglok.com for details
This comes in a set of four flavours - traditional, pandan, black sesame and red dates - at $22 a box.
My favourite is the traditional one because the caramelised sugar is much more fragrant than what you get in most nian gao.
It is also not very sweet and is recognised by the Health Promotion Board for its lower sugar content.
Just cut into slices and pan fry till the outside gets slightly crisp. Serve warm.
5. Nian Gao Goodies
Where: Blue Lotus outlets at Sentosa Cove, Tanjong Pagar Centre, Stevens Road and Alexandra Road. Go to www.bluelotus.com.sg/chinese-new-year-2019/ for details and to order
When: Until Feb 19
The goodies are a set of four sweet and savoury Chinese New Year cakes packaged in a pretty four-tier tingkat carrier that you can recycle for other uses.
For $38, you get carrot cake, yam cake and two types of nian gao - traditional and red date.
Like the platter from Crystal Jade, the red date flavour is the standout, as the dates have a distinctive flavour that I like. But this does not have coconut milk and tastes more like a traditional Chinese sweet cake. It is not too sweet though.
The two nian gao are best eaten by cutting them into thick slices and pan frying with a little oil.
The savoury cakes just need to be steamed briefly to heat them up.