Chinese New Year traditions are fascinating. I love the way that certain foods are associated with Chinese New Year because of their auspicious meanings, or because they sound like words that are lucky. One celebratory food item is a simple steamed dessert called ‘fagao’ (發糕) popular in Taipei bakeries throughout the Spring Festival holiday. ‘Fa’ means to rise, which symbolises rising fortunes and luck. And it is also the same character used in ‘facai’ (發財, to become wealthy). Gōngxǐ fācái (恭喜發財), is one of the most common greetings over the festival period; even my toddler knows how to recite it when receiving red envelopes.
Fagao are often eaten at breakfast or as a dessert, in a similar way to steamed breads such as mantou. From my research I gather that traditionally fagao were made predominately from glutinous rice flour, which does not always rise on cue unless the flour is fresh. The recipe I used was from a Taiwanese cooking periodical called ‘Happy Kitchen Magazine’ (快樂廚房雜誌) published by popular the Taiwanese food and cookbook publisher Y Tower. (If you can read full-form Chinese characters, it is worth checking out their recipe database.) Although the ingredients are based around wheat flour, I still take it as reasonably authentic. Actually, the finished product tasted very similar to the fagao sold commercially only with the advantage of being freshly made. And just in time for breakfast: they were surprisingly fast to whip up.
The original recipe called for 8g of baking powder. I was a bit distracted by Taiwanxifu Toddler wanting to ‘help’ and only added 5g, yet my fagao still rose like beautiful round orbs. Phew! Glad I didn’t deflate any Chinese New Year’s luck. If you want to really ensure that your fagao rise into tall cracked peaks, add 8g of baking powder but I am sure that 7g would be sufficient. The traditional flavour is brown sugar, but you can experiment with other flavours if you prefer.
190 ml of water
50g white sugar
40g brown sugar
160g low gluten flour (or all purpose flour)
7g baking powder
40g glutinous rice flour
1. Combine the water and sugars in a small saucepan and stir over a low heat until dissolved. Remove from heat.
2. In a large mixing bowl, add the remaining dry ingredients. (Taiwan sells flour according to whether it has a low, medium or high gluten content. Substitute a flour suitable for baking cakes, e.g. plain or all purpose flour, if you cannot find low gluten flour.) Pour in the warm sugar liquid gradually, mixing until it is just combined. Do not to over mix — it is okay if the mixture is still a little lumpy.
3. Spoon the mixture into a bowl or paper cases. The object is for the fagao to rise high, so fill to at least 2/3rd or 3/4 capacity. I used Chinese rice bowls; no need to grease or prepare any fancy equipment. If using paper cases, place them in a cup or mould to hold them into shape or else they will end up flat.
4. Using the small plastic cup provided with your electric cooker, measure out two cups of water and add to the outside of the cooking pot. Press down to start cooking, and wait until the water starts just starts to steam before carefully placing the fagao into the pot. (If you don’t have an electric steamer, put 350ml of water into the bottom of a medium-sized saucepan. Place a trivet over the water, and then place the Chinese cups on top.)
5. Steam until the water in the pot has evaporated. This should take around 20 minutes. Do not lift up the lid to see if the fagao are rising. Like baking a souffle, it is best not to interfere.
6. Eat straight away, or save until the next day and re-steam briefly to heat.