No-Steam, No-Bake Red Bean Cake: Summer Edition

Summers are hot, the canned tea sweating and the crickets screeching, sizzling, and hissing throughout the night. Summers bring the true, raw form of everyone; it is a time to tell stories of cooler, drier days while snacking on something chilled.

My mom still remembers my da da 大大(grandfather) and my da yi ye 大姨爷 (grand-uncle) returning home from a hot city day carrying a pastry box labeled Mei Li Hua, a vintage Cantonese bake shop in Chinatown Manhattan. It was this sight that cooled, calmed, and refreshed her: if eaten immediately, the bouncy red bean gao 糕 inside could avoid succumbing to room temperature, respite the 10 minute train-ride home. The restaurant shut down before I could even reach for the fork, so, for 17 years, my mother has attempted and failed to duplicate this Tang-beloved chill red bean gao. She could not make the magic happen before my da da and da yi ye passed, until, that is, today.

She encountered a Chinese cooking site called bilibili 哔哩哔哩, where Chinese home cooks post recipes and, unbeknownst to her, illegal piraters post episodes of anime and Chinese dramas. When a cook named Uncle Twelfth 十二叔 started mixing pea flour with red bean––lauding the dish for its refreshing qualities––euphoria flooded my mother, the thick and starchy blend hardening to cool thick squares, snacks of her childhood reappearing on the screen. After several trials of refining and remaking to cater to ingredients found in North America, my mother taste-tested the gao, swiftly sliced a huge piece, packed it, and drove straight to my Hao puo 好婆 grandma’s apartment. Da Da‘s definitely pecking on that slice, slicing off too much and getting scolded at by Da Yi Ye, in heaven. Here it is.

First, A Gastronomical Explanation of Pea Starch

Requiring no oven or steamer, this sweet red bean cake sets itself into an elastic gelatinous cake form and consistency all because of a magical ingredient enjoyed by thousands of five-year-old kids throughout the world: pea starch.

It is important to distinguish pea starch from pea flour and pea protein. Do not go blending a bag of dried peas in a food processor thinking you will attain a thin, sifty powder; you will instead receive more a pea-nut butter. Wear a mask, drive to your local or online Asian supermarket, and buy yourself a bag of “pea starch”. Pea starch is inexpensive yet essential for this recipe: pea starch’s viscosity facilitates gelatinization with its starch dosage. Because of its neutral taste and color, pea starch also provides the texture without the veggie-taste.

Pea starch is commonly used in glass noodles and gummy confectionaries because it can gelatinize at a higher temperature. Evidently in our recipe, pea starch helps to set our gao 糕 conveniently at room temperature.


  • Red bean 300 g
  • Water 1500 g (to cook red bean)
  • Pea Starch 150 G
  • Water 250 g (to mix with pea starch)
  • 1 C Sugar
  • One 8″x8″ container
  • Oil to spray container


1. Soak red beans in a big pot with 1500 g water overnight.

2. On the next day, cook the red bean until boil.  Turn the flame on low, cook for 45 minutes until the red bean softens. To test: when you squeeze the fully cooked red bean between two fingers, it should be smashed very easily, though I caution that the beans may be hot. Preserve 1000 g red bean soup in the pot, add water if in deficit.

3. In a separate medium bowl, combine 150 g pea starch with 250 g cold water, stirring well. Pea starch thickens at the bottom of the bowl easily, so scoop wide rotations.

4. Make sure you stir the starchy batter before you carefully and slowly pouring it into the simmering pot of red bean and soup, stir the red bean at the same time, cook them for 1 minute.  Add in sugar, stir and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, you will feel the red bean soup thicken and becomes sticky. Turn off the flame.

Stir in starchy batter
Sticky texture
Add sugar

5. Pour the sticky red bean mixture into a greased container. Place the container in a water bath to cool. When it completely cools, the batter turns bouncy, elastic, but firm to touch at surface, signifying that it is fully set. Separate the gao from the side of container, flip it out, slice it into the desired size.

6. Please leave a slice for Da Da.

Published by holidaysallyearround

For most cultures, holidays serve as the only opportunities in the year in which we come together: to reunite with faraway relatives, reconcile our past ancestors, and refill stomachs. And for most, holidays fall deep into history, myths, or grandma's fictitious tales that dictate the food boiling after a sacrificial ceremony to the decorations adorned on doors.

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