When we think of rice cakes, many of us think of the dry, salty discs used for a quick spread of peanut butter or hummus. But the truth is, there are many different ways to approach and cook rice cakes, especially when you’re making Chinese dishes at home.
Chinese rice cakes can take several easy and delicious forms and can be influenced by important holidays, adjusted to many different palates, and tackled in your own kitchen with ease.
Here at Fly By Jing, we want to make the process for engaging with and enjoying your favorite Chinese food recipes as smooth and accessible as possible. That’s why, in addition to our wide lineup of spices and oils, we also provide our favorite recipes and what you need to know about making rice cakes at home.
What Is a Chinese Rice Cake?
Crunchy rice cakes that come a dozen to a bag are just one way to utilize rice as an ingredient, but there are many other approaches. In Chinese cooking, rice cakes are often made from a glutinous mixture, which allows them to be formed into many unique shapes and mixed with a wide variety of ingredients and classic Chinese flavors. You can also make them with regular rice flour for more savory dishes, as well.
They can be steamed, stir-fried, or grilled, prepared as a soup, appetizer, or main dish, and can be sweet or savory, depending on what kind of flavors and ingredients you like most. When it comes to making Chinese rice cakes, the only question is—where do I start?
History of Chinese Rice Cakes
We do have some idea as to where and how rice cakes got their start. Rice cakes have a unique and legendary history in Asia that dates back as far as 5,000 years ago. Recipes have been found from the sixth-century explaining how to make rice cakes—and the instructions aren’t very different from the ones you would follow to make rice cakes today.
Some changes have been made to the preparation of the rice before cooking. Still, rice cakes have proven to be an essential element of Chinese holidays, like the Chinese Spring Festival, and generations of Chinese culture. Wealthy families hired rice cake makers. Rice cakes were given as gifts, and the dish evolved and changed as it spread through centuries and regions—and eventually around the world.
Chinese Rice Cake Recipes to Try Today
Whether you’re looking for a sweet or savory dish, or you want the chance to try out creative cooking skills, Chinese rice cakes are an excellent dish your whole family is sure to love. Here are just a few Chinese rice cake recipes you can cook at home today.
If you’re going to try your hand at any rice cake recipe, nian gao is both a delicious and culturally important dish that won’t steer you wrong. It’s made with just four main ingredients: sugar, water, regular rice flour, and glutinous rice flour, though you can add your own flavors if you’re looking for a more unique or specific taste.
While nian gao can be made all year round—and you’ll want to, since it’s absolutely delicious! —it has traditions in the Chinese New Year celebration. That’s why it’s often referred to as a year cake or Chinese New Year’s cake.
Over time, through translations and homonyms, the name has come to be associated with the idea of raising oneself taller with the new year. To that, people eat it so that they might have good luck or a “high year.”
Nian gao can be made in many different ways, depending upon which region of China your recipe is from. For instance, in Cantonese cuisine, it will be steamed and then optionally pan-fried, or even served as a pudding. The version of nian gao you will find in Shanghai is most commonly stir-fried and may be made sweet, savory, or without flavor as an additive for texture. In Shandong, it will be flavored and colored with red dates and yellow sticky rice.
All of that is to say, explore your many options for delicious nian gao recipes and find one that matches your palate and meal.
Chinese Rice Cake Soup
Another popular and delicious way to prepare rice cakes is in a Chinese rice cake soup. This dish will look a little different from the last one because you’ll be using chewy, flat rice cakes, which add texture to your soup and allow the flavors to permeate more fully. You can use these kinds of rice cakes in many different dishes, including stir-fries, bakes, and more.
This dish calls for pork or chicken, but you can adjust it to meet a vegetarian diet by adding more of your favorite vegetables and swapping out the stock for vegetable. You’ll also want to grab a few of your Chinese food pantry staples, like soy sauce, sesame oil, Shaoxing wine, and ginger.
You’ll start by cooking up your meat in a mix of Shaoxing wine, sesame oil, and a few other basics. Let it marinate for about 15 minutes. Then you’ll stir fry your meat in your wok. Next, you’ll cook all of the vegetables in oil for about two minutes. Add chicken stock and water, bring to a boil, and then simmer.
After that, you’ll stir it all together and add your rice cakes. It’s important that your rice cakes float; otherwise, they’ll stick to the wok when heated. Keep covered on the heat just long enough for your rice cakes to be cooked through, just about a minute, then dress and serve.
Stir Fried Rice Cakes
Another easy and versatile rice cake option that you can adjust to both your diet and your favorite ingredients is a rice cake stir fry.
For a rice cake stir fry, you’ll be looking for the same type of rice cakes you use for your rice cake soup. They’re available at most Asian markets or online and can come vacuum packed, fresh, frozen, or dried. Follow the instructions on the package for how to prepare them and adjust your recipe accordingly.
This dish can be made in myriad ways, but you’re sure to enjoy the flavor profile of pork, bok choy, and shitake mushrooms. Begin by marinating your pork and then prepare your rice cakes according to the instructions on the package. Then slice, clean, and prepare your vegetables. Leafy vegetables like bok choy are excellent for Chinese stir fry, but mushrooms, carrots, scallions, and garlic are all great flavors and additions as well.
Cook your pork and then begin adding in your vegetables, accounting for cooking time and wok heat. As with the soup, you’ll want to put your rice cakes on top to avoid them sticking to the bottom of the wok. Then add your water and cover, so that the vegetables and rice cakes steam for about two minutes. After that, it’s a matter of stir-frying everything together and then immediately serving.
Rice Cake Spring Rolls
For a new take on classic Chinese flavors, try using an air fryer for your next favorite Chinese rice cake recipe. You only need an air fryer and a few simple ingredients: your rice cakes, spring roll wrappers, water, and butter.
Wrap your rice cakes in your spring roll wrappers and seal them closed with a touch of water. Brush with butter and then air fry for about five minutes, watching for burning. Then flip them, brush with butter again, and let the other side cook for another four to five minutes.
Once they’re out of the fryer, they’re going to be extremely hot, so allow them a few moments to cool so you can enjoy every bite! These air fried spring rolls are all about sweet, crunchy texture, and they’re perfect for dipping in your favorite Chinese condiments, like a hot chili oil.
Rice cakes have a long and exciting history, and they have evolved and changed many times over the millennium since they were first developed. That means home cookers and Chinese food traditionalists alike can create many easy and delicious recipes with sweet and savory rice cakes to fit any occasion.
Whether you’re making a New Year cake or a warm, cozy soup for those cold winter nights, you’re sure to love the extra texture, flavor, and experience of adding rice cakes to your dish. They’re easy to work with and can be prepared in just about any way you see fit. And when you’re ready to start exploring the best rice cake dishes to fit your tastes, explore the spices and oils available here at Fly By Jing and start mixing up your favorite rice cake dishes today.