It used to be that I’d run into the Chinese grocery specifically for the steamed rice cakes. I’d look for the saran wrapped packages, throw a couple in the cart and move on to the more desirable selection of Swiss chocolate rolls and candied walnuts. The steamed cakes were for my mother. In Cantonese they’re called Nian Gao, in Hakka they’re called Wun Ban.
When I was little, my mom made Wun Ban at home. She’d use her Osterizer to pulverize rice and water, strain it and pulverize it again until the liquid was silky smooth. Sweetened with a bit of sugar, she’d steam the cakes in round pyrex bowls. When they finished cooking, they’d be pale unappetizing discs of solid beige jello. My mother was the only one who enjoyed this dessert. My brother and I certainly did not and my father never once tried it in all their years of marriage.
How to describe the taste?
It was made of rice and it tasted like rice.
My mother loved it.
With a sharp paring knife she’d cut a slice, spear it with the tip and delicately bite off small portions. She’d chew it slowly and savor the soft gumminess, the mellow, understated flavor of rice. Eating Wun Ban was a quiet activity. Talking interrupted the flavor or maybe, the memories that the flavor conjured.
My mother said that her father made Wun Ban to sell in his Auntie’s shop. He’d fry green onions to a golden brown and sprinkle them on the batter before steaming. He’d score the cooked cakes into half inch strips and cut them into rectangular portions. As she spoke, I vaguely recalled a large netted box spread with sheets of pale steamed cakes, cooling in the shadow of my grandparents’ dining room. It sat on old wooden table covered with a red and white checkered oilcoth. I remember tearing a long, soft, stretchy rope of cake, holding it high above my head and nibbling up the length from one end.
In Toronto I can buy Nian Gao in the Chinese supermarket. On my way to visit my mother, I’d stop and buy a couple packs for her. At least, I used to. The last time I was there, I automatically reached for the Nian Gao, my muscular memory forgetting that she had passed away.
I bought it just the same. That night, I cut a slice and silently chewed on the slightly sweet, almost nutty, starchy graininess of rice.