Salmon Fried Rice Cakes
Salmon Chao Nian Gao
Share this Recipe
Auspicious. It’s a good word, isn’t it? It’s a very hopeful, weighty word, evocative of the very success and opportunity it’s meant to forecast. What I find particularly interesting about it is that it doesn’t come up terribly often in English conversation, but it comes up all over the place in English articles about Chinese culture. The lunar new year is rapidly approaching (it happens to fall on February 16th in 2018), and the word ‘auspicious’ is about to pop up all over the place. The lunar new year is one of the most important times of the year to be with family, and as we all know, family and food tend to go hand in hand. But the dishes that tend make an appearance in China during the New Year are chosen not just because they’re tasty, but because they are meant to usher in a year of prosperity. They are auspicious dishes. (How weird is it that those two words rhyme? English spelling is crazy.)
Fish, rice cakes, dumplings, noodles, and more – all dishes meant to ensure luck, prosperity, and happiness. But why that is, exactly, has a lot to do with language. Chinese is a tonal language,(1) so the meaning of a word is determined not only by the phonemes, but by the tones used to pronounce them. These sounds vary somewhat across the Chinese dialects, but I’ll use Mandarin Chinese as an example, as it’s the dialect I’m most comfortable with. Take the word ‘zhu’ – if spoken with a flat tone of voice (zhū), it means pig (豬). With an ascending tone (zhú) it means bamboo (竹). With a descending tone (zhù) it means to live, or dwell. With a descending-then-ascending ‘u-shaped’ tone (zhŭ) it means to cook. As you can imagine, a sentence about cooking pork with bamboo where you live could get a little confusing. The complexity doesn’t stop there either, as their are true homophones to deal with as well. For example, the same flat ‘zhū’ that means pig can also mean tree trunk (株), bead (珠), and vermilion (豬). This aspect is generally made clear by context, in writing, and/or by frequency of use. Because similar sounding words can have such widely disparate meanings, a great deal of attention is often paid to words that resemble each other. In essence, a lot of words are effectively considered lucky (or unlucky) because the language is loaded with built-in puns. Be still, my dad-joke-loving heart. You might notice that Chinese grocery stores carry a lot of pomelo at this time of year; pomelo is pronounced yòu (柚), which sounds like the words ‘to have’ (yoŭ – 有) and ‘also’ (yòu – 又). Because of this, eating pomelo symbolizes continuing prosperity. Puns!
So what makes this particular recipe auspicious? Well it’s got something to do with the fish, and something to do with the rice cakes. Salmon is fish of course, and fish (typically left whole, but we can get away with pieces here because we’re doubling down on the auspicious foods) holds a special place of significance at this time of the year. The word fish (yú – 魚) sounds like the word surplus (yú – 余), so eating fish is meant to symbolize having more than you need in the year to come. Rice cakes are called nián gāo (年糕) in Mandarin Chinese, and this too holds homophonic significance. The expression nián nián gāo (年年高) means to grow (or become) higher year after year. This can refer to growing children, succeeding in school, rising up in one’s position at work, etc. The argument could easily be made that this particular recipe therefore symbolizes one’s wealth or financial success growing year after year.
A little bit of googling will quickly reveal that these rice cakes look very different from many of the other ones you’ll see associated with Chinese New Year dining. That’s because rice cakes tend to come in two very different forms, one sweet, and one savoury. The former looks quite a bit more like an actual cake, made from sweetened glutinous rice and other ingredients. But my favourite version is the type commonly encountered in Shanghai, and it looks entirely different. Typically made as long, relatively thin rolls, these rice cakes are then sliced into rounds and used in savoury applications. Not only are they wonderfully simple, textural, and easy to work with, but they work perfectly (in my mind anyway) with the slightly sweet, rich soy sauce style of cooking frequently encountered in Shanghainese cuisine.
If you’ve never had savoury rice cakes before, picture a dense and rather chewy rice noodle. The sauce and the marinade for the salmon are wonderfully rich with a sweet-salty kick. The soy sauces (especially dark soy sauce) play a significant role in this and many other Chinese dishes, and I’ll address them a bit more below in the Recipe Notes. All in all, it’s a very easy recipe to make, and an even easier one to love. It’s fantastic year round too, so don’t feel that you can only have it at the New Year. Chao nian gao is a perennial favourite in Shanghai, and has become more and more popular in other parts of China as culinary trends and traditions have spread. That being said, it does have a certain stick-to-your-ribs quality that feels especially comforting during colder weather. Though ribs might not be the first place that it sticks to – one last little bit of tradition and folklore surrounding nian gao always makes me laugh. In addition to the auspicious linguistic reasons for serving nian gao, it was also considered an important New Year offering to Zao Jun, the kitchen god. This was because if he had a mouthful of sticky rice cakes, he’d be unable to speak ill of your family to the Jade Emperor. Chao nian gao – keeping stomachs full, mouths happy, and gods silent.
It probably comes as no surprise that a recipe like this includes some traditional Chinese ingredients. If you don’t cook a lot of Chinese food, you’ll most likely need to pick up a couple of staples at a Chinese or Asian grocery store – but don’t worry. The ingredients in this dish are easy to find, easy to work with, and long-lasting, so you’ll have lots of time (and lots of desire!) to cook more recipes like this. I’ve also included some possible variations to let you adapt the recipe a little.
I used wild sockeye salmon for this recipe, both for it’s fantastic flavour and beautiful colour. You could use any of the wonderful wild salmon species found here on the Pacific coast, but more intensely colourful species (Coho, Sockeye, most Chinook) will give you the best visual impact, as they impart a deep red-orange character that works wonderfully with the caramel tones of the dark soy sauce. Because you’re marinating the salmon in a soy-sauce mixture, lighter coloured fish (Keta/Chum, some Pink) are more likely to look a little anemic in the final dish. That being said, even the latter species will still taste fantastic, so if they’re what you have, go for it.
This recipe is a great way to really get the most out of a salmon or salmon fillet. Because you’re cutting the salmon into bite-sized, chopstick-friendly pieces, you can use the thinner tail sections, rich (but thin) belly meat, and pieces of meat from around the collar. This lets you trim a fish or fillet to leave the large, thick center portions of the fillet intact to be used for another recipe. These choice fillet cuts are ideal for using in other recipes, as their even size will allow them to cook perfectly evenly. This recipe calls for about 225 g (about 1/2 lb) of salmon, so starting with a large fillet will give you just about what you need from the tail and belly, leaving the perfect and beautiful center portion for grilling, roasting, etc.
Soy sauce is one of those ingredients that we all know, but often fail to pay any attention to. The thing is, not all soy sauces are created equal. Good soy sauce, used judiciously, can make the difference between a mediocre recipe and a truly great one. This recipe and many others like it use a combination of light and dark soy sauce. Both of these are readily available and Asian grocery stores and are usually pretty well labeled. Light soy sauce is so-named because it’s lighter in colour, not in flavour, and definitely not in salt. Dark soy sauce has a deep and rich brown colour that’s considered indispensable in many Chinese recipes, especially red-cooked dishes like Dongpo Rou (Braised Pork Belly). That being said, while dark soy sauce has a rich flavour, it’s actually somewhat mellower and less salty than light soy sauce.
Most all-purpose soy sauces are light soy sauces, so if you’ve already got a bottle that doesn’t really specify, keep that in mind. If you’re looking to lower the salt content a bit, you can use a reduced sodium soy sauce in place of the light soy sauce as long as it’s got a good, sharp, clean flavour. These are (confusingly) often labeled as ‘lite’ soy sauce, but that’s done simply to indicate their reduced salt content, and not their colour or flavour. I always look for soy sauce with the minimum number of ingredients and/or types that indicate that they’ve been traditionally fermented. Traditional soy sauce is made using time-consuming fermentation processes, resulting in a complex and delicious product. However, many inexpensive soy sauces are made using acid-hydrolysis techniques. The process is fast and the end product is extremely shelf-stable, but the flavour and texture are inferior. Moreover, they often have added sugars, preservatives, and flavour enhancers. If you’ve never paid much attention to your soy sauce, I very much encourage you to spend 10 minutes looking at the labels and price points in a Chinese grocery store. Buy a decent quality product, and you’ll notice benefits right away.
If you’re going to buy dark soy sauce (and you should, because it’s amazing), look for one with as little added to it as possible. Many cheaper dark soy sauces add caramel colouring in order to achieve the deep colour. While I don’t have a problem with caramel colour itself, its presence generally indicates that the soy sauce hasn’t been fermented as long or to the same standards as a higher quality brand. You’ll also find that some sugar is typically found in dark soy sauce, though the amount varies quite a bit from brand to brand, so take that into account when shopping and cooking. If you have access to a Japanese grocery store but not a Chinese one, note that Japanese dark soy sauce is called koikuchi (light soy sauce is called usukuchi). It doesn’t taste exactly the same as the Chinese types, but it can definitely be used here.
If you can’t find dark soy sauce, you’ve got a couple of options. First, if you have tamari, consider using that. Tamari has a bold, rich flavour somewhere between light and dark soy sauce, and it tends to have a fairly dark colour. If that doesn’t work, you can use regular light or all-purpose soy sauce, though I would use slightly less than the recipe calls for to avoid an overwhelmingly sharp and salty taste. You won’t get exactly the same look to the final recipe, and you’ll definitely want to make sure you like the flavour of your soy sauce since you’ll be doubling down on it, but you can still get good results.
No complicated or expensive trips to a liquor store necessary. Shaoxing wine is a traditional Chinese rice wine that gets used in cooking a great deal, and it’s easily found at any Chinese or Asian grocery store. If you don’t have one of those in your neck of the woods, there’s a pretty decent chance you can order some online. While there are high-end wines meant for drinking, the standard cooking wine has salt added and can be found alongside vinegar, soy sauce, and other pantry staples on grocery store shelves. It’s inexpensive stuff, and will last indefinitely. In the event that you can’t get Shaoxing wine, you can substitute another rice wine, or a light, dry cooking sherry. The flavour won’t be exactly the same, but it will work nicely nonetheless. If you’re wondering about other recipes to use Shaoxing wine, there are plenty of great ones out there. I’ve got quite a few here on Diversivore too, including Mapo Tofu, Dongpo Rou, and Stir-fried Snow Peas with Lotus Roots.
Every ingredient I’ve mentioned so far (and all the rest that I haven’t mentioned) can be found with ease at Asian and/or Western grocery stores. Rice cakes should generally be fairly easy to find, though it helps to know where. Rice cakes like the ones I used here are generally sold in either the freezer or refrigerator sections of Asian grocery stores. They’re somewhat like fresh noodles, and aren’t shelf-stable, so don’t look for them in the dried goods. I live in an area with a very large Chinese population and I can find them at pretty much any Chinese grocery store, but it’s worth noting that the absolute best bet for finding them is generally going to be a Korean grocery store. Korean rice cakes are called tteok, and they’re quite popular. Even at the Chinese grocery stores here, the better brands tend to be Korean. You can find tteuk shaped like the Shanghai-style rice cakes I’ve used here and in a cylindrical shape (picture a gigantic solid noodle cut into segments). The disc-shaped rounds are traditional in this case, but I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t use the cylindrical ones in their place.
Rice cakes are quite easy to use, but a few little tips will help you perfect your cooking. First of all, if you’ve bought frozen rice cakes, defrost them completely. If you need to speed the process up dunk the unopened bag in a bowl of warm water. The thawed rice cakes should be carefully separated, as they make stick together a little, then thoroughly rinsed to get rid of excess rice starch. I like to then dunk the rice cakes in a bowl of tepid water for about 10-15 minutes to get rid of a bit more starch and to help them hydrate a little, but you can skip this step if you like. At this point, you’re basically ready to cook with them. Rice cakes are STICKY, and if you toss them into a dry wok they’re going to stick to the metal and get ripped to shreds. Don’t be afraid to use a bit of oil and keep them moving while you cook. Some recipes simply call for you to stir-fry the rice cakes, but I find that they remain too dry, so I stir-fry a bit before adding some liquid to the wok and covering with a pot lid to let them steam up a little. Note that you can use any lid that fits over the food, and it doesn’t have to cover the whole wok or pan. I myself use a large domed pot lid stolen from a dutch oven. It sits inside my wok and works perfectly.
The basic premise of salmon, veggies, and a dark, salty-sweet Shanghai-style sauce lends itself very well to other dishes too. If you can’t find rice cakes or want to try something a little different, this recipe also makes an amazing fried rice. Simply omit the rice cakes and added water and substitute 4-5 cups (600-800 g) of pre-cooked (and preferably day-old) rice. Make sure you drizzle the sauce in slowly at the end so as to avoid drenching one portion of the rice while leaving the rest plain.
Noodles would also work well here. Rice noodles would capture much of the same flavour and some of the texture that you get with rice cakes. As with rice, simply substitute the noodles for the original rice cakes. You’ll want to pre-cook the noodles immediately before adding them to the wok so that they don’t stick together too much. Wheat-based Chinese noodles would also work nicely, and can be substituted in the same fashion.
I’m not going to go into too much detail here because I’ve already written a whole article about the ins and outs of stir-frying. If you’ve ever wondered why your home-cooked stir fries have ended up mushy or lacked that seared flavour (it’s called wok hei, and it’s the best), I strongly suggest you give the article a read.
There are three big keys to success with stir-frying. The first is organization. The second is heat, and LOTS of it. The third is not over-crowding your pan.
Organization is essential here because once you start stir-frying, things are going to go fast. Everything cooks for a very short period of time, and if you’ve forgotten and ingredient or sauce, there’s a good chance you won’t be able to get it into the meal before it’s too late. Make sure you have everything you need ready to go before you even think about turning on the stove.
Heat is unfortunately the trickiest thing to get right when stir-frying at home. It’s difficult to get many home stoves to produce enough heat to really get a wok (or large pan) to that ideal, ultra-hot temperature. I use a gas range and a carbon-steel wok which I get blisteringly hot before adding my ingredients. If you don’t have a wok, a large cast iron skillet can do a pretty respectable job, as it holds heat well. Just make sure to get it screaming-hot first. If you have a non-stick hybrid wok pan, you’re better off using cast iron or a heavy skillet. Nonstick pans generally aren’t meant to be used at high heat (unless they’re ceramic), which makes ‘non-stick woks’ something of an oxymoron. If you have an electric stove, be patient as you get the temperature up and be extra careful about the next step.
Lastly, and importantly: DO NOT. OVERCROWD. THE PAN. All that heat in the wok can’t do it’s job if you put a gigantic quantity of cold food right into the middle. Instead, you end up with steamed, wilted vegetables, mushy starches, and pale un-caramelized meat. Not good. Take note of the directions below, as they instruct you to cook the components of the dish one after another, only recombining them toward the end. Be sure to let your wok get hot again in between ingredients too, as it will cool substantially whenever sauce or cold ingredients are added.
Once you get to the actual rice cakes, you will, understandable, have a pretty full pan. That’s ok, as you’ll have worked all that amazing high-heat flavour into the sauces and other ingredients. Keep the rice cakes moving gently but quickly as you combine all of the ingredients and don’t let the finished dish sit too long or it will stick.
One final tip – if you’re unsure about whether or not you can work fast enough or with enough heat, cut the recipe in half and/or cook it in two batches. It’s way easier to stir-fry 2-3 portions than it is 4-6.
Note: nutritional info is given for a single side-dish style serving (1/8 total recipe). If you eat this as a main dish you can approximately double the serving size and all of the information below.
No ingredient pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
- 200 g sockeye salmon skinned and cut into smallish pieces
- 650 g Chinese or Korean rice cakes fresh or frozen (see note)
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 3 scallions white portions thinly sliced, greens cut into larger pieces
- 1 clove garlic minced
- 200 g chinese cabbage finely chopped (~3 cups)
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 tbsp Shaoxing wine
- 1 tbsp dark soy sauce
- 1 tsp rice vinegar
- 1/2 tsp sugar
- 1.5 tbsp light soy sauce
- 1 tbsp dark soy sauce
- 1 tbsp Shaoxing wine
- 1.5 tsp sugar
- 1/2 tsp ginger juice (squeezed from grated ginger)
- 1 clove garlic minced
- If using frozen rice cakes, make sure that they're completely defrosted and separated into individual pieces, then soak them in a large bowl of water for 10-15 minutes before draining and set aside. If using large uncut rice cake, slice into oblong rounds, about 1/2 cm thick. You can soak them the way.
- Combine the marinade ingredients in a small bowl. Add the salmon and marinate at room temperature for 20-30 minutes.
- Combine the sauce ingredients and set aside.
- Heat about 1 tbsp of the oil in a wok or large, deep-sided frying pan. When the oil is very hot and shimmering, add the marinated salmon. Stir-fry until the salmon is cooked through and slightly browned; about 2-3 minutes. Remove the salmon from the wok/pan and set aside.
- Return the wok to the stove and add the remaining oil. Add the scallions and garlic and stir fry for about 30 second, then remove these from heat and keep them with the salmon. Add the Chinese cabbage to the wok and stir-fry for about 1 minute before adding this aside with the other ingredients as well.
- Add the rice cakes to the wok along with 1/2 cup of water. Stir and toss the rice cakes while the water heats up, then cover and cook for one minute. If you don't have a lid large enough, cook uncovered for about 2 minutes, stirring continuously until the rice cakes are tender.
- Return the salmon and vegetables to the wok and stir to combine.
- Make a small well in the center of the food and add about 1/4 of the sauce to the wok, tossing and stirring continuously over high heat. As the liquid thickens or evaporates, add another 1/4 of the sauce. Repeat this process until all of the sauce has been added. This ensures a thick, glossy sauce that covers the rice cakes, rather than soaking into them. Remove the finished stir fry from heat and serve immediately.
Chinese or Korean rice cakes (called nian gao and tteok respectively) are simple starchy rice-based ingredients somewhat resembling over-sized noodles. The type commonly used for this resemble thin ovals, but Korean ones also come in a cylindrical form. Rice cakes can be found frozen or refrigerated in Chinese, Korean, and Asian grocery stores.