How to Make Chinese New Year Cake Nian Gao (Sticky Rice Cake): What Is, Tips, Step – By- Step Guide
How to Make Chinese New Year Cake Nian Gao (Sticky Rice Cake): What Is, Tips, Step – By- Step Guide

Chinese New Year, Spring Festival or the Lunar New Year, is the festival that celebrates the beginning of a new year on the traditional lunisolar Chinese calendar. In Chinese culture and East Asian countries, the festival is commonly referred to as Spring Festival as the spring season in the lunisolar calendar traditionally starts with lichun, the first of the twenty-four solar terms which the festival celebrates around the time of the Lunar New Year.

Nian gao, sometimes translated as year cake or New Year cake or Chinese New Year's cake, is a food prepared from glutinous rice flour and consumed in Chinese cuisine. It is also simply known as "rice cake". While it can be eaten all year round, traditionally it is most popular during the Chinese New Year. It is considered good luck to eat nian gao during this time of the year because nian gao (年糕) is a homonym for "higher year" or "grow every year" (年高), which means "a more prosperous year".

In the article below, we can learn more on what Nian Gao is, tips to make it by following an easy step by step guide.

What Is Nian Gao - Chinese New Year Cake?

How to Make Chinese New Year Cake Nian Gao (Sticky Rice Cake): What Is, Tips, Step – By- Step Guide
Photo: What To Cook Today

Nian gao is a traditional food eaten during Chinese New Year. People believed it carries auspicious meaning.

Nian gao is a homonym for "higher year." The Chinese word 粘 (nián), meaning "sticky", is identical in sound to 年, meaning "year". The word 糕 (gāo), meaning "cake" is identical in sound to 高, meaning "high or tall".

For old people, nian gao expresses the wish for longevity. For young people, it expresses the wish for promotion and high income. For kids, it expresses the wish to grow up.

The main color of nian gao is yellow and white. In Chinese culture, yellow symbolizes gold and white symbolizes silver. So nian gao also symbolizes the God of Wealth.

Whether from the point of view of pronunciation or color, nian gao is a lucky food and it sends good wishes for a better year.

History of Nian Gao

The history of nian gao is over 2000 years. After the Chinese Calendar established in the Zhou Dynasty (11th century BC - 256 BC), Chinese people began to have the concept of "year". From then on, people offered nian gao as sacrifices to gods and ancestors.

In the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD), nian gao became a traditional Chinese food eaten during the Spring Festival.

In the Qing Dynasty (1636 – 1912), nian gao developed into a common folk snack eaten all year round, but it is still a special treat for the festival.

How to Make Chinese New Year Cake Nian Gao (Sticky Rice Cake): What Is, Tips, Step – By- Step Guide
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The Kitchen God Legend

The sticky sweet rice cake niangao was believed to have been created as a cunning offering to the Kitchen God, who is believed to reside in every house. At the end of every year, folklore says, the Kitchen God makes his “yearly report” to the Jade Emperor. To prevent him from badmouthing their house, people offered niangao, which would stick his mouth shut. Hence, niangao is prepared for offering before Chinese New Year.

The Foundation Bricks Legend

Nian Gao has another legend about its origin, dating back to around 2,500 years ago:

Legend has it that, after the death of Wu Zixu (伍子胥, 559–484 BC), a general and politician of the Wu kingdom in the Spring and Autumn Period (771–476 BC), the king of Yue, Goujian, attacked the capital of Wu, and the Wu army and citizens were trapped in the city and there was no food. Many people starved to death during the siege.

How to Make Chinese New Year Cake Nian Gao (Sticky Rice Cake): What Is, Tips, Step – By- Step Guide
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At this time, someone thought of Wu Zixu's helpful words: "If the country is in trouble and the people are in need of food, go and dig three feet under the city wall and get food." The soldiers did what Wu Zixu instructed and found that the wall’s foundation was built with special bricks made from glutinous rice flour. This food saved many people from starvation. These bricks were the supposed original niangao.

After that, people made niangao every year to commemorate Wu Zixu. As time passed, niangao became what is now known as Chinese New Year cake.

Different types of Nian Gao

Guangdong/Cantonese cuisine

How to Make Chinese New Year Cake Nian Gao (Sticky Rice Cake): What Is, Tips, Step – By- Step Guide
Photo: China Highlights

The Guangdong variety is sweetened, usually with brown sugar. It is distinct with a dark yellow color. The paste is poured into a cake pan and steamed once more to settle the mixture. The batter is steamed until it solidifies and served in thick slices. It may be eaten as is. The nian gao becomes stretchy and extremely sticky. It can also be served as a pudding flavored with rosewater or red bean paste.

The next stage is optional, as it can be sliced and be pan-fried afterwards, often with egg, to make fried nian gao (Chinese: 煎年糕; pinyin: jiān nián gāo; Jyutping: zin1 nin4 gou1). When fried, it is slightly crispy on the outside, and remains pasty on the inside. During the Chinese New Year, it is cut into square pieces and served along with similar cake dim sum dishes, like water chestnut cakes and taro cakes. People also send pieces of nian gao to their friends and relatives as wishes for prosperity and good fortune.

Fujian/Hokkien cuisine

In the Southern region of Fujian, nian gao, natural amber, is mainly used for the New Year ritual and gifts. It is made of glutinous rice and taro, usually sliced and cooked before eating. It can also be wrapped in egg or cornstarch (corn flour) or sweet potato to fry.

Jiangnan and Shanghainese cuisine

How to Make Chinese New Year Cake Nian Gao (Sticky Rice Cake): What Is, Tips, Step – By- Step Guide
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Nian gao is white along the lower reaches of the Yangtze River (the Jiangnan region), and it is a mild food. It is made by mixing rice with glutinous rice; the ratio between the two can be adjusted according to personal preferences.

The softer version has an increased proportion of glutinous rice. Cooking methods include steaming, frying, sliced frying, or in soup. Ningbo nian gao is the most famous, and common practices include pickled pork soup nian gao and shepherd's purse fried nian gao. Shanghai's ribs nian gao are also distinctive. The Shanghai Niangao style is usually packaged in a thick, soft rod to be sliced up or packaged sliced and either stir-fried or added to soup.

Depending on the cooking method, this style is a soft to a chewy variant. The Shanghai style keeps the nian gao white, and is made with nonglutinous rice. The color is its distinct feature. When served as a dish, the most common is the stir-fry method, hence the name (炒年糕, chǎo nián gāo). Three general types exist. The first is a savory dish; common ingredients include scallions, beef, pork, cabbage, Chinese cabbage, etc.

The second is a sweet version using standard white sugar. The last version is almost tasteless, and is often consumed for its chewy textures.

Northern cuisine

Northern nian gaocan be steamed or fried, and is mainly sweet in taste. The Beijing versions include jujube jujube and either glutinous rice or yellow rice), mince nian gao, and white nian gao. The Shanxi makes nian gao using fried yellow rice and red bean paste or jujube paste for filling. Hebei uses jujube, small red beans, and green beans to make steamed nian gao. In Shandong, it is made of red dates and yellow rice. The Northeast type is made of beans on sticky sorghum.

What Does Rice Symbolize Chinese New Year?

These sweet rice balls are common during the Chinese New Year for good reason: Their round shape signifies unity. These gooey balls also represent harmony and family togetherness because their name (tang yuan) sounds like the word “reunion” in Chinese (tuan yuan).

Rice (米饭; mǐfàn) – fertility, luck, wealth, rice symbolizes a link between Heaven (Gods) and Earth (Men) Nian gao, (Chinese: 年糕; pinyin: nián’gāo) Sticky (Rice) cake, Chinese new year’s cake. It is considered good luck to eat nian gao because it has the symbolism of increasing prosperity every year.

Nian gao, or ‘year cake’, is a sticky rice cake which represents prosperity; the words ‘nian gao’ sounds like ‘getting higher year on year’, and this symbolises raising oneself taller in each coming year.

Why do people eat rice on Chinese New Year?

Rice (米饭; mǐfàn) – fertility, luck, wealth, rice symbolizes a link between Heaven (Gods) and Earth (Men) Nian gao, (Chinese: 年糕; pinyin: nián’gāo) Sticky (Rice) cake, Chinese new year’s cake. It is considered good luck to eat nian gao because it has the symbolism of increasing prosperity every year.

Rice is a good omen in a dream and is often associated with prosperity, luck, fertility, new beginnings, sharing, companionship, and success. To see rice in a dream is a very good omen bringing with it joy and happiness.

How To Make Nian Gao: Easy And Simple Step-By-Step Guide

How to Make Chinese New Year Cake Nian Gao (Sticky Rice Cake): What Is, Tips, Step – By- Step Guide
Photo: What To Cook Today

Step 1: Wrap the mold with banana leaves

-Cut the banana leaves into sections.

-Clean the leaves under running water. Pat dry.

-Blanch the banana leaves in hot water to soften it. Alternatively, soften the banana leaves by heating it over a stove. Heat-treated banana leaves will become softer and will not easily break when it is used to wrap around the mold. I prefer to heat the banana leaves over the stove because it is quicker and simpler.

-Wrap the banana leaves around the outer rim of the mold and insert the remaining part of the leaves into the mold.

-Insert a smaller round container into the mold and press the leaves against the base and the inner wall of the mold.

-Repeat the same process by adding one or two more leaves.

-Then, cut a piece of round shaped leave with the diameter slightly bigger than the base. Insert and press against the bottom to cover the base completely.

-Secure the position of the leaf by putting a rubber band around the rim of the container.

Tips

-Get an appropriate mold for the nian gao. The ideal size should be about 8 to 10 cm ( 3 to 4 inches) in diameter.

-You can certainly purchase this type of mold from the store. However, if it is unavailable or does not wish to buy it merely because of making the nian gao once a year, you may make use of any empty metal cans. Clean the can, and you are ready to go. This method is used by most of the traditional nian gao producers in my home town. Besides that, you can also use ramekins as the mold.

-It is vital to cover the inner surface completely to avoid the glutinous rice flour mixture from leaking out during steaming. Since glutinous rice flour is very sticky, it can be challenging to remove the nian gao from the container if it sticks onto the can.

-The use of multi-layers of leaves does not only prevent the rice flour mixture from leaking, but also infuse the banana leaves aroma and flavor to the nian gao.

-If you do not have banana leaves, you can line the mold with non-stick baking paper. However, nian gao will lack the natural aroma of the banana leaves.

Step 2: Caramelized the sugar for better flavor

-Heat the granulated sugar in a pot over low heat.

-Keep stirring until most of the sugar has melted and turned into golden brown.

-Add the hot water or the pandan extract bit by bit into the caramelized sugar. Be careful not to add too much initially as the sugar will react with the water and boil rapidly.

-Once you have finished adding the water, stir and keep aside. Any remaining sugar will dissolve by itself after it cools down.

Step 3: Constitute the glutinous rice flour mixture

-Measure the required amount of glutinous rice flour in a large container.

-Add the caramelized sugar syrup into the glutinous rice flour slowly.

-Combine the syrup and the rice flour into a smooth batter with a fork or a handheld mixer.

-Let it passes through a wire mesh strainer to remove any possible lumps.

Step 4: Steam the nian gao

-Pour the mixture into the mold line with the banana leaves.

-Cover the molds with aluminum foil.

-Set up a steaming station. Steam the nian gao over medium heat with the lid on for 30 minutes.

-Reduce the heat slightly and continue steaming over medium heat for another 1 1/2 hours.

-After 2 hours of steaming, remove the nian gao and let it cool at room temperature.

-To unmold the nian gao, fold the leaves upwards, then pull the nian gao out from the mold.

-Cut off the excess leaves on top of nian gao, and there you go, your nian gao is ready.

Tips

Since it takes two hours to steam the nian gao, check the level of water in the pot from time to time to ensure there is enough water for steaming at all times.

The color will slightly darken when it returns to room temperature.

To serve

Nian gao can be served on his own. However, a better way is to cut it into slices, coat with egg, and then deep fry until golden brown.

Freshly made nian gao is very soft. It is easier to cut into slices after refrigerated for two days, as it will become firmer after refrigeration.

The traditional way of making nian gao takes about 20 hours of steaming until all the water content is gone. Therefore, it can be stored for a very long time without the need to be refrigerated. The modern way of making it spend much less time, and therefore need to be refrigerated as it can get moldy quickly at room temperature.

Tips to make a delicious Nian Gao

1. Chinese people usually put some red paper on top of the nian gao. It is a traditional way to show good wishes, so don't be surprised.

2. Don't eat too much at a time as nian gao is made from glutinous rice flour, it is hard to digest.

3. Store nian gao in a dry and cool place. It can be stored for a long time (half a year) in the refrigerator. Just reheat it with a steamer or microwave when you are ready to eat.

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