What is Nian Gao?
Nian gao(年糕） is one of the most popular desserts during the Spring Festival in China, as it's believed to bring good luck and prosperity for the coming year and symbolizes wealth. It is usually made with glutinous rice flour and other ingredients and then steamed until it becomes solid, with a sticky and chewy texture that comes from its high starch content.
The famous nian gao is one of the most exciting, sticky rice-based desserts in the Chinese New Year celebration. This is a desert with lots of traditions. You can eat it on its own as a snack, but it's more commonly eaten as part of your Chinese New Year meal.
The name "Nian Gao" literally means "year cake", which may have been derived from the fact that nian gao is eaten on New Year's Eve which marks the beginning of a new year in Chinese calendars.
The word “nian” means “year” in Chinese, and the word “gao” means “high” or “tall”. There are many versions of nian gao, but they all have some common features: they are round, flat have a golden color, and sticky texture once cooked.
Ingredients for Classic Nian Gao
Glutinous rice flour: To make nian gao, you need glutinous rice flour. Make sure you get glutinous rice flour and not regular rice flour. Sometimes called sweet rice flour, know that glutinous rice flour is not sweet at all!
Rice flour: I add some rice flour to the nian gao mixture, to hold the cake well due to the glutinous rice flour's sticky nature. I had tested plenty of versions previously, and the best radio for both flours is 4 :1. Which means 4 parts of glutinous rice flour to one part of rice flour.
Dark brown sugar: We’ll also use dark brown sugar to give our cakes a sweetness and the loveliest tanned color.
Dried red dates: For garnish, it is optional.
For a creamier texture, you can always take your sticky rice cakes to the next level with full-fat coconut milk, but that’s entirely up to you. Either way, it is going to turn out to be a delicious treat, believe me. It will add extra flavor to this recipe. You can also replace dark brown sugar with white cane sugar. The nian gao will turn to white color instead of brown color if you do so.
You can also add extra ingredients such as nuts, red bean paste, lotus seed paste, sesame seeds, peanuts, dried fruit and so much more based on your personal preference. However, the most traditional way is the simplest version without adding anything extra.
How to Make Perfect Nian Gao Step by Step
Start by gathering all the ingredients. In a medium saucepan, add ginger slices, water, and dark brown sugar, and bring the mixture to a boil. Simmer the mixture for 10 minutes on low heat. Remove it from the heat and let it cool down to warm or room temperature.
Slowly pour the liquid mixture into the flour mixture in a large mixing bowl, and whisk it until it's evenly and well blended, and you no longer see the dry clumps. The final mixture should have a smooth silky texture. Grease the pan with oil and pour the final mixture into the pan. Garnish dried red dates on top of the cake. (optional)
Steam it for about 1 and a half hours depending on the size of the pan on medium-high heat. I use an 8-inch round metal cake pan. Turn off the heat. Let the mixture cool down completely before cutting it for a better result. I left mine overnight at room temperature before I cut it. Cut the nian gao into thin slices or small pieces and fry it until golden brown.
The steaming tools: Traditionally, Chinese people use a bamboo steamer to steam nian gao. If you don't have it, you can also use a stainless-steel pot. Whatever you are using, it is a good idea to check the cooking process with a toothpick by poking into the nian gao mixture. If the toothpicks come out clean, it is fully cooked.
If you are hesitant about making this traditional steaming nian gao, you can always buy a premade one from Asian markets first and see if you like it before you make your own.
How to Serve Nian Gao
I think the best way to enjoy nian gao is to cut it into smaller pieces or thin slices, about 4 inches long by 1 inch wide. Coat in slightly thickened egg wash, and then pan fry both sides with some vegetable oil on medium heat. I like eating nian gao as a breakfast food, especially if it is fried with a light egg batter, which I am about to eat in a minute:)
Store and Reheat
Nian Gao can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. The texture will become slightly harder and denser, but it's still delicious! The cakes should be kept away from sunlight and moisture. You can also put nian gao in the freezer has a shelf life of about 2 months if stored properly. Make sure you wrap them well before putting them in the freezer. Plastic wrap or aluminum foil works well for wrapping.
You can simply reheat them in a non-stick or cast-iron pan on medium heat until golden brown. Do not forget to add a few drops of cooking oil to the pan before reheating.
This traditional Chinese New Year cake symbolizes a gathering, among friends and families. As the tradition goes, Chinese people believe that what you do on New Year’s Day will affect your luck in the coming year. The sticky cake is the most popular featured food of New Year’s meals. Although these cakes are tasty at any time of year and a great way to treat your friends and family. Traditions make our lives so much more fulfilling!
I hope you enjoyed this recipe! Leave your comments below and let me know how your nian gao turns out. Most importantly, we are one day away from the Chinese New Year. I am editing this post as of Jan 21, 2023. I wish you a very happy Chinese New Year and hope you and your family are filled with happiness and health in the year 2023 !! 🙂
Nian Gao（Chinese New Year Rice Cake)
- In a large bowl, mix glutinous rice flour and rice flour and set aside.
- In a medium saucepan, add ginger slices, water, and dark brown sugar, and bring the mixture to a boil. Simmer the mixture for 10 minutes on low heat. Remove it from the heat and let it cool down to warm or room temperature.
- Slowly pour the liquid mixture into the flour mixture, and whisk it until it's evenly and well blended, and you no longer see the dry clumps. The final mixture should have a smooth silky texture.
- Grease the pan with oil and pour the final mixture into the pan. Steam it for about 1 and a half hours depending on the size of the pan on medium-high heat. I use an 8-inch round metal pan. Garnish dried red dates on top of the cake.(optional)
- Turn off the heat. Let the mixture cool down completely before cutting it.
- Cut the nian gao into thin slices or small pieces and fry it until golden brown.
- Serve warm and enjoy!