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Something to chew on: Asian rice cakes

Not to be confused with their lightweight Western counterparts, Asian rice cakes are dense, flavourful and satisfying

 

Text Susan Jung / Pictures Jonathan Wong / Styling Nellie Ming Lee

 

The chances are, if you ask an American or European about rice cakes, they'll think of the hard, dry round discs made of puffed rice that are sold in health-food shops. The rice cakes eaten by many East Asians are entirely different - they're made from pounded glutinous rice and are very chewy. These recipes call for Asian rice cakes, which come in many shapes and sizes.

Rice cakes with pork, shrimp and Chinese cabbage (pictured)
For this dish, I use the long, flat rice cakes.

500 grams rice cakes
200 grams skinless pork belly
15 shrimp, with bodies about 5cm long
25ml soy sauce, divided
10ml rice wine
Fine sea salt, as needed

½ tsp granulated sugar
2 tsp cornstarch
Cooking oil, as needed
1-2 thin slices ginger, peeled
1 large onion
2-4 garlic cloves, sliced
1 baby Chinese head cabbage (also called napa cabbage)
2 tsp Chinese chilli sauce, or to taste
1 tsp sesame oil
1-2 spring onions, cut into 5mm pieces

Soak the rice cakes in warm water for about 30 minutes; if they're stuck together, pull them apart. Drain them in a colander just before cooking the dish.

Cut the pork belly into thin strips, put them in a bowl and add the rice wine, sugar, cornstarch, 10ml of soy sauce, a quarter of a teaspoon of salt and 10ml of cooking oil. Combine thoroughly then leave to marinate for about 15 minutes.

Remove the shells and heads from the shrimp (they can be used to make stock). Devein the shrimp then cut them in half lengthwise and pat them dry with paper towels. Add a pinch of salt, mix thoroughly and refrigerate until needed.

Cut the onion in half, then slice it about 3mm thick. Roughly chop the cabbage.

Place a wok over a high flame. When it is hot, add about 20ml of cooking oil and the ginger and stir-fry for about 15 seconds. Add the onion and garlic and cook until wilted. Put the ingredients in a bowl. Heat about 15ml of oil in the wok (no need to wash it) and add the cabbage and a sprinkling of salt. Stir-fry until the cabbage is wilted, then put it into the bowl with the onion and garlic. Heat 20ml of cooking oil in the wok, add the pork and stir-fry until it loses its pink colour. Stir in the rice cakes, 15ml of soy sauce and about 80ml of hot water. Mix briefly then cover the wok with the lid and simmer over a medium flame until the rice cakes are almost tender. Put the shrimp into the wok along with the ginger, onion, garlic and cabbage. Stir to combine then mix in chilli paste to taste and a little salt, if needed. Simmer, stirring often, until the shrimp and rice cakes are cooked. Stir in the sesame oil and the spring onion, then serve.

Mochi with butter, sugar and soy sauce
My Japanese neighbours back in California used to make mochi for various celebrations, including those for New Year and birthdays. Most of the time, they'd use a machine, but if there was a big group, with many people to help, they'd pound the hot, cooked rice in a huge mortar, with everyone taking turns at wielding the large, heavy pestle. The first time we tried this combination we were sceptical, but our neighbours assured us that it would be delicious, and they were right. Use plain mochi that's in a disc about 4cm in diameter. Thaw it, if frozen.

About 30 grams butter
6 mochi
About 2 tsp granulated sugar
Soy sauce, for drizzling

Melt the butter in a skillet and, when it sizzles, add the mochi. Cook briefly on one side, then turn the mochi over. Immediately sprinkle sugar on the cakes, then turn them over again and sprinkle more sugar on the other side. Cook until the bottom of the mochi is golden brown and caramelised, then flip them over again; if the skillet is too dry, add more butter. Continue to cook until the second side is brown and caramelised then put the mochi on plates, drizzle with soy sauce and serve hot.

Korean rice cakes with fish cake, seafood and gochujang
I have fond memories of being in Seoul with friends, standing on the street after a long night of drinking (when in Rome …) eating rice cakes bought from a vendor. It was freezing cold but the styrofoam cup of rice cakes kept our hands warm and helped to soak up some of the alcohol.

This version of ddeokbokki (which has many variations on the spelling) is fancier than the street-food versions, which often have just rice cake and onion simmering in the sauce, without any fish cake or seafood. However, unlike many restaurant versions that I've tried, where the seafood overwhelms the dish, the main focus here is the rice cakes.

If possible, buy fresh rice cakes, which are more tender and less chewy than the chilled ones. They should be long and cylindrical in shape.

400 grams fresh or chilled Korean rice cakes
30ml cooking oil
1 medium-sized onion, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, sliced
About 80 grams gochujang (Korean chilli paste)

½ tsp gochugaru (Korean chilli flakes), or to taste
About 30ml corn syrup
150 grams Korean fish cakes, thinly sliced
12 fresh clams
3 fresh squid (with bodies about 4cm long), cleaned
Fine sea salt, as needed
Sesame seeds, for sprinkling

If using chilled rice cakes, soak them in warm water for about 30 minutes, or until they're pliable, then drain them just before cooking. Put the gochujang and corn syrup in a bowl, add 100ml of boiling water and stir until dissolved. Cut the squid bodies into 5mm rings.

Heat the cooking oil in a skillet, add the onion and garlic and cook over a medium flame until wilted. Add the rice cakes, chilli flakes and the gochujang/corn syrup mixture to the skillet and simmer. Stir in the fish cake and seafood and season to taste with salt. Simmer, stirring often, until the rice cakes are tender and the seafood is cooked. The ingredients should be lightly coated with the sauce; if it's too thick, stir in some boiling water. Adjust the seasonings, if needed, then sprinkle with sesame seeds before serving.

 

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