In the kitchen of Wang’s mansion in the old city of Yangzhou is an enormous, old-fashioned cooking range. Built from bricks and whitewashed clay, it rises imposingly at one end of the room. There are five wok stations with fire-beds beneath and cubbyholes behind, for storing seasonings; above, two great chimneys rise to the raftered roof. Perched on top of the range, with a good view of the room, is the Kitchen God’s shrine. The Kitchen God (zao jun) is the watchman of the Chinese family. Once a year, he reports on their behavior to the Jade Emperor in Heaven, who then decides whether they deserve reward or punishment. To bribe him, family members traditionally make offerings on the twenty-third of the last lunar month of the year, the day of his departure. They light candles and incense before his shrine, burn paper money and, most importantly, give him sweet and sticky things to eat, to seal his lips or, failing that, to sweeten his words.
These gorgeous little pumpkin cakes would do the job perfectly. They are crunchy and golden on the outside, soft and sticky within, with a rich, sweet stuffing.
Scoop up 1/3-ounce (10-gram) pieces of red bean paste and roll them into balls, dusting them with glutinous rice flour to prevent sticking. Set them aside. Peel the pumpkin and scrape out the seeds. Cut it into thick slices, put them in a dish in the steamer basket, and steam until completely tender. Set aside to cool.
Mash the pumpkin to a paste or blitz it in a food processor. Season with sugar to taste—pumpkins vary in their sweetness. When the pumpkin has cooled enough to handle, add 2 teaspoons cooking oil, then the glutinous rice flour in stages, mixing thoroughly to make a fairly stiff, putty-like dough that does not stick to your hands. You won’t need to add water because the pumpkin itself is so juicy. Leave it to rest for 10 minutes.
Break off an apricot-sized lump of dough, about 1 ounce (35 grams). Roll it into a ball, then gently flatten it between your palms. Make an indentation in the center and press in a ball of red bean paste stuffing. Draw up the sides of the dough to enclose the stuffing completely. Roll it into a ball again, then flatten it into a disc about 1/2-inch (1 1/2-centimeter) thick. Repeat with the remaining dough and stuffing.
Heat the oil for deep-frying to 300° F (150° C). Fry the pumpkin cakes in batches over a medium flame for about 8 minutes, until golden. The oil should fizz around the cakes, but not too aggressively—you want them to cook slowly enough to melt the fat in the stuffing, and to avoid bursting them open. Serve hot.