How to Gau
|Photo gallery: Gau: Sweet treat|
By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor
By Wanda A. Adams
In Honolulu's Chinatown, you can tell the lunar new year is almost upon us (it starts Feb. 7): 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 ("gow," sounds like "cow") — 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).
Among Hawai'i Chinese — most descended from immigrants from southern Guangdong, once called Canton — gau are as ubiquitous at New Year's as cookies at Christmas. Families serve gau to guests making traditional New Year's visits. Grandmothers, mothers and aunties hand out their prized gau as coveted gifts (most don't lightly share their recipes, even within the family — one reason that home gau-making is dying). Many in the younger generation daydream all year of a treat little known outside of Chinese households — slabs of stiffened leftover gau fried in hot oil until they're meltingly soft with a tantalizing light crust, served the day after New Year's parties.
A few years ago, a woman from Shanghai taught me to make the traditional white gau of her region — in the microwave! But I was interested to know how traditional gau was prepared. I knew that commercial gau isn't highly thought of; the bakers don't steam the cakes as long as they should, my friends say.
And long, slow steaming — the kind only a stay-at-home auntie has the time for anymore — is the key, according to octogenarian Elsie Ching of 'Aina Haina, who offered to host what we called "international gau fest," where a group of us would compare and contrast different types of gau.
Ching invited her friend Gladys Lee and the two demonstrated how to make plain gau, steamed in a homemade basket of ti leaves (dried bamboo leaves are traditional but ti leaves are free!).
Marylene Chun (blogmistress of www.anythingtoeat.blogspot.com), who first introduced me to Ching, and her friend Cathy Silva, made different versions of gau, both steamed and baked. And I brought the microwaved Shanghai-style cake flecked with pine nuts and Chinese dates so they could taste it.
(There was a hilarious moment when Lee tasted my gau and said, "Oh, the microwave makes it gummy!" I misheard her and was puffed with pride. "Yes, it is yummy, isn't it?" I said, only to be quickly deflated.)
During a long morning of talking story, cooking, eating, recipe-sharing, eating, steaming and more eating, the elders shared their wisdom and stories, and we younger women scribbled notes.
"It makes a big difference when you talk to these ladies and you watch them do it. There are so many steps that you wouldn't know from just looking at the recipe, so many tricks," said Chun.
For example, Lee explained that she spreads the work of making gau over several days. Three or four days ahead of time, she picks and cleans ti leaves for lining the steaming basket; they need time to get limp and soft (or you can just microwave them on high about 40 seconds "until you can smell them, just like when you make lei," said Ching).
The day before making gau, she 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. (Ching and Lee were taught that it's important that the syrup not be hot when it's mixed with the rice flour — though they weren't sure just why.) 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 said 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 few — one for the family and one that she express-mails to her daughter in California. Her technique is to combine about half the liquid with the rice flour in a large bowl, then knead it to remove lumps, creating a silky dough. The remainder of the liquid is mixed in, along with a little oil. The unctuous batter is poured into the mold and steamed for hours, not unlike an English Christmas pudding.
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, said Lee, "I just do what I was taught." Either works, but a looser batter must be steamed for a much longer period.
Our favorites among those we tasted included, besides classic plain gau, a slow-steamed yam gau that Marylene made from a friend's recipe and a fudgy baked gau Cathy made with dried bing cherries. (And I loved the texture and flavor of the pine nuts in the Shanghainese gau, too.)
What of the storebought gau? We found it tasteless and slighty chemical. But I did locate house-made gau in Chinatown that's as good as anything we made — at (of all places) a Japanese retaurant, Yusura, 53 N. Beretania.
Our "gau fest" taught us that steaming gives the deepest flavor and color to gau. And that added ingredients can be nice, too.
Reach Wanda A. Adams at email@example.com.