February 2, 2014

Chinese New Year Cake Nian Gao 年糕

Chinese New Year Cake Nian Gao 年糕

chinese, chinese new year, nian gao, rice cake, sweet, recipe, homemade
By Published: 2014-02-02
Chinese love harmony.  Harmony is the motivator for all things Chinese.  Thus the perfect cake for the Chinese New Year is the perfectly round Nian Gao, or 年糕, a celebration in itself of perfect harmony and balance.  Also known as Chinese Sweet Rice Cake, Nian Gao is a delicious sweet treat that is made and served throughout the Chinese New Year, both to family and to visitors that drop by on their New Year's visits.  I love Nian Gao, it is so beautiful, yummy and easy to make.  It's one of my favorite foods of the Chinese New Year!

The Nian Gao is traditionally made to be offered as a sticky yummy bribe for the Kitchen God Zao Jun, or 灶君, who, each Chinese New Year, reports to the Jade Emperor on whether your family has been naughty or nice the past year.  And of course, Nian Gao is also a lucky food symbol for the upcoming new year.   年 means 'year' and 糕 means 'cake', however, 糕 is also pronounced exactly like the character 高, which means 'tall'.  So thus the Chinese love of word play changes Nian Gao, or "year cake", to mean "tall stature in the upcoming year."  Hum, such an auspicious food, maybe I should eat even more Nian Gao!

chinese, chinese new year, nian gao, rice cake, sweet, recipe, homemade, kitchen god, zao jun
Kitchen God Zao Jun, or 灶君

chinese, chinese new year, nian gao, rice cake, sweet, recipe, homemade

In the Chinese community nowadays Nian Gao is usually homemade only by grandmothers, even though in the old traditional days everyone made it at home.  My 老公's Grandma is legendary in Vancouver, Canada for making Nian Gao every Chinese New Year, supplying shops all over Chinatown with her wonderful sweet rice cakes.  She is retired now, of course, being over 90, but in her heyday Grandma, with just Grandpa helping her, produced a massive and professional supply of Chinese New Year Cake Nian Gao right out of her home kitchen.  Her glutinous rice flour was stone ground*!  And then hand mixed!  Can you imagine the labour?  And the yummy taste of the freshly ground flour?  Grandmas are so cool!

* Note: The Chinese revere foods made without touching metal as they say that metal corrupts the taste of foods.  (Just to be clear, they revere this philosophy but don't apply it in general to any modern cooking preparation that I am aware of, which is too bad!)  

chinese, chinese new year, nian gao, rice cake, sweet, recipe, homemade, slab sugar
Chinese Slab sugar, or 片糖
When preparing to make Nian Gao this year I decided to forgo the slab sugar, or 片糖 that is usually used for Chinese New Year Cake and instead opted for a much more expensive Okinawa Black Sugar.  Slab sugar is compressed blocks of mostly unrefined cane sugar and imparts a more complex, caramel taste.   It is used in many Chinese desserts.  Okinawa Black Sugar was an experiment, but I knew the moment that we ripped the package apart and nibbled a corner of the irregular shaped dusty brown sugar lumps that it was going to work.  While Slab Sugar is lovely, it is also straightforward, bold, a bit earthy almost.  Okinawa Black Sugar was a melody of tastes on the tongue, sophisticated, not too sweet, making you want to have more and more.  It tastes so good that you could eat it as candy in it's own right.  (Actually my little girl decided that it was candy and tried to eat the rest of the bag!)  And I thought that since the ingredients for Nian Gao are basically two things, glutinous rice flour and sugar, it would improve the taste of Nian Gao if I opted for quality ingredients!

chinese, chinese new year, nian gao, rice cake, sweet, recipe, homemade, black sugar
Okinawa Black Sugar
Another consideration for the better taste for the Nian Gao is the caramelization of the sugar.  In the case of both the slab sugar and the black sugar, these are brown sugars and are readily cooked over low heat to a caramely roasty flavor.  I believe that a major reason that the Nian Gao you buy in stores nowadays is not so very yummy (thus causing the decline in popularity of Chinese New Year Cakes) is that they don't bother to properly caramelize the sugar.  So you get sweetness, yes, but not much flavor except the ricey flour taste.  Which can be kinda 'meh' if it's too strong.  On the other hand, homemade, properly caramelized Nian Gao is really, really yummy, a proper chinese cake of a dessert!

chinese, chinese new year, nian gao, rice cake, sweet, recipe, homemade

Once you've steamed your Chinese New Year Cakes be sure to decorate the top while hot otherwise your toppings won't stay on.  People often use dried red dates 紅棗 and sesame seeds.  In our case, I forgot to buy dates so had to improvise.  I carefully cracked some licorice flavored watermelon seeds and used that and some leftover black sesame seeds .  Once decorated let the rice cake cool completely, wrap and refrigerate overnight.  Be sure to wait to remove from the molds the next day.  It will be easy to get the cake out, whereas if you try to do it too soon (like I did!) the cake will just squish and stick to everything.

chinese, chinese new year, nian gao, rice cake, sweet, recipe, homemade, lucky windmill
Our Chinese New Year Lucky Windmill!
To serve the Chinese New Year Cake you can prepare by slicing what you want to eat and then steaming until warm (a few minutes), or you could try a favorite Chinese method of slicing, dipping in egg batter and pan frying.  This is our favorite way to have Nian Gao:  melty sweety sticky rice cake encrusted inside a thin savory layer of fried egg, yummy, yummy!

chinese, chinese new year, nian gao, rice cake, sweet, recipe, homemade
chinese, chinese new year, nian gao, rice cake, sweet, recipe, homemade
Pan Fried Egg Dipped Nian Gao

Hope you all enjoy our Chinese New Year Cake Nian Gao 年糕 recipe!

Happy Chinese New Year!  心想事成!  May all your wishes come true!

Chinese New Year Cake Nian Gao Recipe 年糕

8 porcelain ramekins or 2 nos. 6" cake tins


1 3/4 cup white or black sugar, or 4.5 Chinese slab sugars (350g)
1 cup water
3 3/4 cups glutinous rice flour, 500g
1 1/4 cup water
2 tbsp peanut oil
dried dates 紅棗
1 tbsp black sesame seeds
1 tbsp shelled chinese watermelon seeds


Dissolve sugar in 1/4 cup water in small pot over low heat.  Stir to encourage to dissolve.  After sugar is dissolved stop stirring but watching the pot carefully.  The sugar will become darker and more aromatic.  When the sugar just turns a dark golden color turn off the heat.  If you are using dark colored sugar you will need check for caramelization by taste and smell as the sugar is already a dark color so you cannot tell that much by the color change but be careful the sugar will be very hot.  Let sugar cool a minute and then slowly pour in 1 cup water, being careful as the syrup will boil up.  Stir and then let cool completely.

Mix flour, caramelized sugar, 1 1/4 cup water and oil in mixing bowl until absolutely no more lumps.  Grease your steaming pans generously with oil.  Pour the mix in, tapping the mold lightly on work surface to release any air bubbles.  Do not fill molds all the way to the top,  the cake should be 1.5 to 2.5" tall and leave 1/2" clear space to top of pan.

Steam over medium high heat for 2 hours.  Don't forget to replenish steamer water once in a while.  Remove immediately from heat and decorate the cake tops with sesame seeds and watermelon seeds by pressing seeds down firmly but gently.  When cool, wrap and refrigerate overnight.  The next day you can remove from molds by inserting fingers in one side and carefully peeling the rice cake out.  To serve, re-steam until soft or dip in egg wash and pan fry til soft as per recipe below.

Pan Fried Egg Dipped Nian Gao Recipe


10 slices Nian Gao
1 egg
1 tsp butter (or peanut oil)


Slice however much Nian Gao you want to eat in 1/4" slices.  Beat egg lightly.  Heat up your cast iron pan to low heat and melt butter.  Dip Nian Gao into the beaten egg and quickly place straight on your pan.  Repeat with the rest of the slices.  Fry 30 secs on each side on medium low heat, or until the Nian Gao is soft and egg dip is golden brown.  Remove from pan and eat immediately!

More Chinese Festival recipes at The Hong Kong Cookery:

make your own mooncake recipeMid Autumn Festival- Making Your Own Mooncake

zong zi rice dumpling recipeZong Zi Rice Dumpling 粽子

hong kong mooncake moldHong Kong Mooncake Molds 月餅模具


  1. Thank you for the recipe! Nian Gao brings back many great childhood memories for me.


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