I will leap entire buildings for niangao (年糕). Well, no, perhaps not really, but I will go across town for Beijing’s absolute best glutinous rice cakes. Such is the power of the Bai Family’s Rice Cakes (Bai Ji Niangao 白记年糕) that the normally daunting distance from Dongcheng to Xuanwu District suddenly means nothing to me. Subway, taxis, bicycle, I’ve done it all, just for that magical alchemy of sticky rice and red bean paste. Thirty or four minutes later, there I am, placing an order at the counter, watching hungrily as my hunk of rice cake is sliced, weighed, and bagged. This is true love, I know.
Mr. Bai is passionate about his raw ingredients – something unusual among Chinese chefs, who more often than not see their profession as just a job. He visits dozens of farmers to seek out the best variety of glutinous rice (from Tangshan 唐山, if you care to know), and buys directly from them. “If the harvest is bad,” Mr. Bai says, “they might try to pass off rice from down south as their own, but I know them well and go there personally, so they’ll always save me their own crop.”
He then grinds the glutinous rice (nuomi 糯米 or jiangmi 江米) himself – “other people will mix in regular rice flour,” which is cheaper. And the red azuki beans (hongdou 红豆) are picked over by hand. “It’s very difficult to have a few kilos of beans without a grain of sand or two. But you won’t find any sand in my beans. Two, three workers are in charge of the beans, and they are all extremely careful.” The magic motivator, it turns out, is pure and simple self-interest. “First comes quality. If no one complains, then all my workers get annual bonuses. If one person complains, then the bonus will decrease.”
His red bean paste (hongdou sha 红豆沙 or douxian’r 豆馅) perfectly balances silky and chunky. The color is a lovely dark burgundy – anything paler would mean that it’s been adulterated, perhaps with cornstarch. The taste, too, is rich and beany, just sweet enough, unlike inferior red bean paste that makes up for dull flavor with colossal amounts of sugar.
Mr. Bai makes several variety of niangao. His most famous product, qiegao (切糕) is a large rectangular slab of alternating layers of steamed rice and red bean paste, topped with slices of tangy haw berry jelly. Individual pieces are sliced to order, quickly and efficiently, by the young men and women working there – hence its name, “sliced cake”. His qiegao come in several varieties of rice: white glutinous rice (jiangmi 江米), purple rice (pictured above, zimi 紫米), ground millet flour (xiaomi mian 小米面), and ground glutinous rice flour (jiangmi mian 江米面). The latter two feel more like a sticky, soft mochi, while the former, made with soaked grains of rice, offer a chewier, firm texture. They are also definitely the most popular; by 5pm or 6pm, the white and purple rice varieties may well be sold out.
The “rolling donkey” (lü dagun’r 驴打滚) is a log of steamed rice wrapped around sweet red bean paste. It’s then given a dusting of roasted soybean flour, emerging an ochre yellow – just like a donkey that has happily taken a roll in the mud. Most other lü dagun’r tend to choke you with an excess of soybean dust, but here there is just the right amount of nutty flour. The texture and “mouth feel” (kougan 口感) of the steamed rice is phenomenal, chewy and sticky and smooth. Again, the best in Beijing.
A variation (or improvement?) on the lü dagun’r is the zhima juan’r (芝麻卷), rolled in white or black sesame seeds. For those unused to soybean flour, this is much easier to love, with the sesame adding a toasty, fragrant crunch.
It might all sound too good to be true if I told you that not only is this the tastiest niangao in Beijing, but also the healthiest. This is because Mr. Bai is Hui Muslim, and his shop is entirely halal, located in the heart of Niujie (牛街), Beijing’s oldest Muslim neighborhood. Halal (qingzhen 清真) foods don’t use any pork products, so the red bean paste is made with vegetable oil and not lard, as at many Han shops. There is also no lard used in the glutinous rice – indeed, no oil at all.
Niujie is the home of Beijing’s finest halal foods; non-Muslim foods are banned. But someone expecting to find exotic renditions of Central Asian favorites here may be a little disappointed: Hui halal food in Beijing looks almost exactly like traditional Beijing foods, except with a little more mutton. This is perhaps as good a sign as any of Beijing’s multicultural origins, whatever the capital city might wish you to think of national harmony. Though predominantly Han today, Beijing was conceived in its present dimensions and layout in the 13th century by Kublai Khan, along with his army of Mongolians and Central Asians. Travelers from as far as the Middle East helped to build Niu Jie, and their descendants became the Hui (回), who helped to shape Beijing’s culture and food over the years.
Today everyone takes it as a matter of course that the traditional Hui foods are also the iconic “old Beijing” foods – in fact, could they have been Muslim in origin? The best and most well-known purveyors of Beijing xiaochi (“little eats”: treats, snacks, street food, sweets, etc. 小吃) are still predominantly Muslim, and they are embraced by Beijingers, regardless of ethnicity, for their authenticity and cleanliness. Especially for people like my grandfather, who have lived in Beijing since childhood, the very idea of xiaochi is so intricately identified with halal shops that they’ll go nowhere else.
Niujie Halal Supermarket (1st floor, facing the entrance) [map]
Bai Ji Niangao 白记年糕
Everything is sold by weight (RMB 8 per jin, a half kilogram), but you can also request items by size or value (e.g., ten kuai‘s worth). The staff are swift and precise in their knife action, and more importantly, cheerful and polite with those who, like myself, may indecisively linger over every tempting item offered. Just be warned that other more decisive shoppers will jump in front of you if you seem unable to make up your mind. Niangao will last a month or two in the freezer, but only a few days in the fridge, especially in summer. They’re best at room temperature, so if you want to warm them up in the steamer, you should let them cool down again before enjoying. Heat will also melt the haw berry jelly – is that a risk you want to take? But it’s likely that whatever you buy, it won’t be enough, and you’ll be back in Niujie in no time.
1 Niu Jie (southwest corner of the Niu Jie/Caishikou Dajie intersection), Xuanwu District
Tel: (10) 6355 6687
Daily 9am-10pm (they will start running out of goods around 6-7pm, earlier during Chinese New Year and Ramadan)