Many varieties of nian gao exist in China, and can be used for both savory and sweet dishes.
One of my favorite types of niao gao is made with short-grain rice. The process starts with soaking the rice grains for 4-7 days, followed by grinding them to a paste with water. After the paste is drained to remove excess water, it is steamed, and then pounded or molded into individual cakes.
The reward for all the hard work is a rice cake with a unique texture. It’s soft, smooth and sticky, but at the same time chewy and bouncy. Such nuanced chewiness makes every bite a real pleasure.
Unless your curiosity propels you to make your rice cake from the scratch, you can find good-quality ones in Chinese or Korean grocery stores.
For stir-frying, choose the pre-sliced, oval-shaped ones. In Chinese cooking, rice cake is typically stir-fried with sliced meat (for example pork, Chinese sausage, or chicken) and vegetables, such as bok choi, spinach, or tatsoi. It makes a very satisfying one-dish meal that you would crave often throughout the year.
A special recipe in Shanghai and neighboring areas, which I’m sharing with you here, calls for shepherd’s purse, known as Jicai (荠菜) in Mandarin. A weed that grows in the wild, shepherd’s purse has a characteristically unique aroma that’s earthy and refreshing. It pairs extremely well with meat or tofu, which intensifies its natural umami. It’s a key ingredient in the iconic Shanghai-style vegetable and meat wontons.
In the US, you can occasionally find shepherd’s purse at your local farmers’ market during early spring. Or, you can get it year-round at the frozen section of Chinese grocery stores. I find the frozen ones retain their original texture and flavor quite well.
You can imagine how surprised and thrilled I was when my friends at Gorzynski Ornery Farm found some wild shepherd’s purse for me a few weeks ago (in early December!), which I captured in the photo to show you how beautiful it looks.
Shanghai-style stir-fried rice cake with pork and shepherd’s purse
Makes 2 servings
8 oz (230 g) rice cake slices
5 oz (140 g) pork tenderloin, cut into thin matchsticks about 2-inch (5 cm) long and ¼-inch (6 mm) thick
3 oz (85 g) shepherd’s purse, fresh or frozen
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
½ teaspoon sesame oil
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
For the marinade:
¼ teaspoon finely grated ginger
½ teaspoon soy sauce
½ teaspoon Shaoxing wine
½ teaspoon cornstarch
- In a bowl, combine the pork with the ingredients for the marinade. Let stand for 15 minutes.
- If using fresh shepherd’s purse, blanch briefly in salted boiling water, shock in ice or cold water, and drain. Or defrost if it’s frozen. Squeeze out excess water and cut into ¼-inch (6 mm) pieces.
- Heat 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil in a non-stick pan over medium-high heat. Add the pork and stir-fry until it loses its pink color, about 1 minute. Transfer the pork to a plate.
- Add the remaining oil to the same pan. Add the rice cake slices in one layer and cook, stirring from time to time, for 90 seconds. Season lightly with salt. Add one tablespoon of water at a time; stir and mix until the water is fully absorbed before adding another. This process takes about 2 minutes, and you need around 3-4 tablespoons of water in total until the rice cake is nicely soft and chewy.
- Return the pork to the pan, and mix in the shepherd’s purse. Stir-fry until the ingredients are well mixed and cooked through, about 1 minute. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Drizzle with the sesame oil and serve immediately.