In Honolulu’s Chinatown, you can tell the Lunar New Year is almost upon us: The sidewalks are choked with shoppers, and displays of seasonal ingredients spill out of the shops.
And gau has appeared: caramel-colored rice cakes shaped like fat coffee cans, dusted with sesame seeds, topped with a Chinese date and dressed in strips of vermilion paper. Gau (sounds like “cow,” but with a G), steamed cakes made of glutinous rice flour and sugar, are beloved for their sweet flavor, a sort of muted butterscotch, and their symbolic significance – they represent all sorts of hoped-for good luck for the new year beginning Feb. 7, which falls on this Thursday.
Among Hawaiian Chinese, gau are as ubiquitous at the start of the new year as cookies are at Christmas. Families serve gau to guests. Grandmas, moms and aunties hand out their prized gau as coveted gifts, and most don’t lightly share their recipes, even with family. Many daydream all year of a treat little known outside Chinese households – slabs of stiffened leftover gau fried in hot oil until meltingly soft with a tantalizing light crust, served the day after New Year’s parties.
Long, slow steaming – the kind only a stay-at-home auntie has the time for anymore – is the key, according to octogenarian Elsie Ching, who held a party where we compared and contrasted different types of gau.
“It makes a big difference when you talk to these ladies and you watch them do it,” says Marylene Chun, blogmistress of anythingtoeat.blogspot.com, during the visit. “There are so many steps that you wouldn’t know from just looking at the recipe, so many tricks.”
The day before making gau, Ching’s friend Gladys Lee assembles the tools she’ll need – round pans, steamer, bowls, kitchen scissors. She melts the slab sugar in water to make a syrup, which is then chilled. And she fashions her ti leaf “mold,” lining a deep round pan with limp leaves arranged in a spiral fashion, building up the sides with stiffer ribbed leaves and securing the whole arrangement with toothpicks. “The old Chinese, they would sew the leaves so it looked very nice. I don’t know what they would think of this,” Lee says modestly, weaving toothpicks in and out of leaves.
On gau-making day, Lee used to prepare as many as a half-dozen cakes. Now she makes just a couple – one for the family and one that she express-mails to her daughter in California.
Lee makes a very thin batter – as loose as cream. Other cooks use a mixture that more closely resembles stiff cake batter. Like most makers of gau, says Lee, “I just do what I was taught.”
GAU MIXING, FIXING TIPS
If you’d like to experience an “international gau fest” of your own, here’s what you need to know:
Ingredients: Use rice flour that’s labeled “sweet,” “glutinous,” “mochi” or “mochiko.” Traditional cooks prefer the penuche-type flavor of Chinese slab sugar, layered brown and white sugar with honey. This sugar must be crushed or dissolved before use. Conventional brown sugar can be used in most recipes.
Peanut oil is preferred, although salad oil is acceptable. Dried red dates, sometimes called jujubes, taste like prunes and garnish the top of most gau cakes. Be sure to remove the pit. If the recipe suggests adding dates to the gau mixture, the jujubes can be first boiled to soften them. The other traditional garnish is a light sprinkling of sesame seeds, toasted to bring out the aroma.
Preparing the pan: Pans must be lined with some nonstick surface to ensure the gau cake can be removed. You also may need a “collar” to build up the height of the steaming container if it’s too shallow; gau puffs and increases in size as it cooks.
For steaming, it’s traditional to line the pan and build up the collar with dried bamboo leaves or wilted ti leaves – both need to be rehydrated before use. Line the baking dish or pan with cleaned, trimmed, deveined leaves in a spiral fashion. Sew around the collar with cotton thread, secure with toothpicks or tie with kitchen string.
For baking, oil or spray the baking dish; a lining of nonstick aluminum foil assures easy release.
For microwaving, use well-oiled plastic wrap or kitchen parchment.
Steaming technique: Gau is traditionally steamed (covered, over simmering water). The nicest equipment is a purpose-built Chinese steamer – a large pot with a rack built in and room for stacking and steaming multiple dishes, pans that fit inside and a lid. But you can improvise with a wok or frying pan or Dutch oven, a round cake pan, Chinese bamboo steaming baskets or other heatproof dishes, some empty cans to serve as a rack and heavy-duty foil for a lid.
Always place a cotton kitchen towel under the lid of the steamer to prevent condensation from raining down on the gau.
About the batter: Depending on your preference and your family’s tradition, gau batter can be as thick as stiff cake batter or as thin and runny as crepe batter. Just remember that the thinner the batter, the longer the steaming time – a very thin mixture can take 8 hours of steaming.
Doneness: Gau is done when a chopstick or bamboo skewer plunged into the center of the pudding emerges clean, with no sticking or crumbs.
Keeping gau: Gau is good at room temperature for a day or two but quickly molds and spoils. It can be stored in the refrigerator but will harden and must then be sliced and fried, steamed or microwaved to soften.
LUNAR NEW YEAR CELEBRATIONS HERE
HIMMEL PARK BRANCH LIBRARY: Performances by members of the Chinese Cultural Center include the lion dance, as well as stories in Chinese and English. Also featured are craft activities, drinks, cookies, candies and door prizes. This is Year of the Rat. When: 10:30 a.m.- 12:30 p.m. Where: 1035 N. Treat Ave. Price: free admission Info: 791-4397
TUCSON CHINESE CULTURAL CENTER: Dinner, auctions and live entertainment are part of this celebration. Proceeds support a variety of programs at the nonprofit center. When: 6-10 p.m. Where: 1288 W. River Road Price: $125 per person Info: 292-6900, www.tucsonchinese.org
DAO’S TAI PAN’S: The restaurant celebrates its 10th annual Vietnamese New Year Celebration, with demonstrations by Arnie Acosta Kuen and the Team, a lion dance performed by Sil Lum Wing Chun, and the martial art of kung-fu. Food menu available. Reservations required. When: noon-2 p.m. Where: 446 N. Wilmot Road Price: free admission; food prices vary Info: 722-0055, www.cacdao.com
Traditional Steamed New Year’s Pudding (Gau)
This is the grandmother of gaus – a plain and simple mixture recognizable to any cook of Cantonese heritage. It’s based on a recipe from “Chinese Festivals the Hawaiian Way,” by Toy Len Chang.
1 pound Chinese slab sugar or brown sugar
2 1/2 cups hot water
1 pound mochiko (sweet or glutinous rice flour)
1/4 cup salad oil
1 Chinese red date (jujube)
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
Place sugar in saucepan, add water and bring to a boil, simmering until sugar is dissolved. Cool syrup completely or chill overnight.
In a large bowl, mix mochiko and about 3/4 of the water; knead in bowl until very smooth. Add remaining syrup and oil, stirring to incorporate.
Pour batter into prepared round pan 7 inches across and 3 inches deep. Steam, covered, for 4 hours. Garnish with sesame seeds and a red date.
Makes 1 (7-inch round) gau, about 10 servings.
Note: This gau may also be cooked in the microwave oven; use an oiled round Pyrex dish. Cover with plastic and cook on high for about 15 minutes, stopping to check doneness first at 8 minutes and then every minute or two thereafter. Rotate twice during cooking if your microwave doesn’t have a Lazy Susan.
This recipe is based on one from the 85th anniversary cookbook from Honolulu’s Hanaha’uoli School. It makes an untraditional fudgelike gau that cuts readily into squares.
1 pound mochiko (sweet or glutinous rice flour)
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 cup raisins (or dried cherries or mixed dried fruit)
1/2 cup chopped nuts
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups water
In a large bowl, mix mochiko, sugar, baking powder, raisins and nuts. In a separate bowl, mix eggs, vegetable oil and water. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and mix well.
Spray a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with cooking spray. Pour batter into pan and bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes. Makes about 20 servings.