What Is Song Gao?

Dan Harkins

A popular treat to celebrate the Lunar New Year in China is a Shanghai-born dessert known as song gao. Meaning "loose cake" in Mandarin Chinese, this dessert forgoes ordinary wheat flour for rice flour instead, along with sugar, some form of dairy, and copious amounts of red bean paste inside. Along the top of these cakes are full-size azuki red beans, each about as big around and sweet as a jelly bean.

Adzuki beans, which are used to make red bean paste, an ingredient in song gao.
Adzuki beans, which are used to make red bean paste, an ingredient in song gao.

The azuki paste is made by boiling the red beans in sugar until they take on sweetness. Then after draining the water, the beans are usually mashed into the red bean paste. Some of the beans, however, are preserved whole, often along with a few different varieties, to stick into the top of the cake batter before it goes into the oven.

Song gao originated in Shanghai, China.
Song gao originated in Shanghai, China.

The cake batter is often made in a fairly straightforward way. Sugar is whipped into eggs, and then various ingredients are whisked in too. Such ingredients include rice flour — the sweet glutinous variety, if possible, coconut milk or some other form of sweetened liquid, eggs mixed with rice flour — a sweet glutinous variety if possible, along with a little milk or coconut milk, sugar and a dash of salt. These flavors cause the song gao to be dense, sweet and a little creamy.

The song gao batter is then poured into mid-side circular cake tins, after grease or parchment paper goes down, but only about one-third full. Red bean paste comes next, and then a final layer of batter. The finishing touch is the un-mashed azuki beans on top.

Song gao is one of several Lunar New Year celebration staples. Another is a similar dessert called nian gao, made with coconut milk and shredded coconut as the star, instead of the paste and beans. Both cakes should bake at about 350°F (about 177°C), for about 50 minutes. Finishing one simply requires letting the cake cool and cutting it like a pie.

According to some sources, China's famous Grand Hotel of Taipei has had song gao on its restaurant's menu without pause since shortly after opening in 1952, taking the place of an ancient Shinto temple. Taipei is the city where the country's former leader Chiang Kai-shek died in 1975. The restaurant states that his wife's favorite dessert was song gao, which is the reason for its longevity on the menu.

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