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Wednesday, May 21, 2003



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KEN IGE / KIGE@STARBULLETIN.COM
Chef Yat Quon Lee lifts the lid off of a steaming pan of rice cake in the kitchen at Golden Palace Seafood Restaurant.




Rice cake revelation

The Chinese treat depends on
a balance of sour and sweet


It takes faith to pull off this dish. Faith, imagination and a finely tuned nose. Beyond that all you need is water, rice flour and sugar.

For as long as I've been doing this food-writing thing, people have been asking me how to make steamed rice cakes. At least that's what we call them in Hawaii. The Chinese name is Bok Tong Go, Sweet Rice Pudding Cakes.

This treat is from the dim sum repertoire, a chewy, sticky treat. Kinda like mochi, but not really. Lots of local kids develop a taste for it, regardless of their Chinese-ness, or lack thereof.

I have a recipe from a 1977 dim sum cookbook that I've mailed to many inquiring minds, always with the caveat that I haven't tested it because the first line scares me: Soak rice in water for three days, or until it sours.

How trustworthy could that be?

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KEN IGE / KIGE@STARBULLETIN.COM
Bok Tong Go, Chinese steamed rice cake, owes its unique flavor and texture to a fermentation process that sours the rice flour.




So, back to faith, imagination, etc. Making this rice cake isn't particularly difficult, but it's not exactly by-the-numbers, either.

First you must have faith in fermentation -- that it is not equivalent to spoilage. This will give you the courage to allow rice flour and water to percolate on your countertop for several days. If you believe in kim chee, this shouldn't be too much of a stretch.

Then, imagination. Call up the scent of a properly made rice cake. (Can't remember? Go fetch one at a Chinese restaurant. They cost about 50 cents, which makes me wonder why people want to make them so badly, but who am I to judge?) Ideally, it's a slightly tangy, starchy smell.

Then you take your nose, compare that imagined scent to what's in that bowl on your countertop and judge whether it's ready.


art
KEN IGE / KIGE@STARBULLETIN.COM
The crucial final ingredient is potassium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate solution, available in Chinese grocery stores.


"If not sour enough, is not going to work," instructs Yat Quon Lee, chef at Golden Palace Seafood Restaurant.

We are assembled at Golden Palace because I have decided to stop ducking this recipe. Running into Titus Chan helped this decision along. Chan is a former restaurateur, current cooking instructor, sometime author and TV chef. I think of him as man-about-Chinatown, because he seems to know all the best stuff.

Anyway, he took me to see Lee, who is in his opinion the best dim sum chef on the island.

With Chan translating, Lee says he learned to make the rice cake more than 20 years ago as a chef-in-training in Kwantung province in southern China. Lee uses rice flour, which is much simpler than my cookbook's method of starting with whole rice, fermenting it, then blending it smooth.

The demonstration begins. Lee pours water into rice flour. "Really mix well, or sourness does not come."

We pretend it is three days later and he makes another mixture, this time of water and sugar. The fermented slurry goes into that.

Now, Lee says, pour off a portion and refrigerate it. This will be your starter solution next time, saving you that three-day fermentation time. The mixture will keep, he says, "forever."

I tell Chan this can't be right. He turns back to Lee. Words are exchanged. Chan turns back: "He says, 'forever.' But maybe we better say one month."

After yet another 12 hours of fermenting, the final ingredient is added -- a few drops of potassium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate solution, a liquid sold in Chinese groceries. Lee says this balances the flavor, reigning in the fermentation. If the mixture has gotten too sour, more bicarbonate can be added. The rice cake is not supposed to taste sour, despite everything we've said so far. It should be sweet with a slightly tangy edge.

In the end, the rice cake emerges from a bamboo steamer, soft and snowy-white, full of spongy holes thanks to the fermentation and the bicarbonate. It takes less than 30 minutes to steam, but it has been four days getting to this point.

Now, the rice-cake genre includes another type, a layered cake that's purely sweet. Lee says the same ingredients go into the layered version, but no fermentation is involved. In exchange, though, you have to deal with the individual layers, steaming one, than pouring in a second, steaming that, and repeating until you have a stack of nine.

As I said, you can buy these things for about 50 cents. I'd leave it to the pros.

Bok Tong Go

>> Step 1:
1/2 pound rice flour
1 cup water

Combine flour and water; cover with plastic wrap. Set aside at room temperature 3 days, until it smells slightly sour.

>> Step 2:
1 pound rice flour
1 cup cold water
1 cup sugar
2 cups hot water

Combine flour and cold water to form a claylike paste.

Dissolve sugar in hot water. Add paste to sugar water.

Stir fermented flour/water mixture from Step 1; add to Step 2 mixture. Mix well.

Remove 1/2 cup of this mixture and refrigerate (this becomes the starter for your next batch). Cover remaining mixture and set aside at room temperature 12 hours.

>> Step 3:
Vegetable oil to grease pan
1/2 teaspoon potassium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate solution

Prepare steamer: Bring water to a boil in a wok or large skillet. Place 12-inch steamer basket over wok. Grease 2 9-inch round cake pans (pie pans may be used, but this will give your rice cake a sloped side).

Add sodium bicarbonate to the fermented mixture. Pour mixture into pans. Place 1 pan into steamer for 30 minutes, then remove and steam second pan. Cool, remove from pans and slice.

Nutritional information unavailable.



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