Chinese New Year Cake, Rice Cake or Nian Gao is a special food item prepared for Chinese New Year. The name nian gao is also a homonym for higher year as it sounds similar to the Chinese words for good year or higher, better year. The cake is prepared with sticky or glutinous rice and brown sugar and symbolizes the idea of growing taller every year. It is also considered lucky and auspicious and indicates that the person will have a happy and prosperous year ahead.
The Chinese New Year Cake was supposed to the best way to appease the Kitchen God. According to legend, a man who had mistreated his first wife jumped into a fire to avoid her. He was so ashamed about his behavior that he tried to escape being seen. His former wife tried to save him but was unsuccessful and had to watch while her husband burned to death. The Jade Emperor was pleased with the man’s repentance and for this reason he blessed the man with the title Kitchen God. In Chinese idolmaking, the Kitchen God is depicted as portly and large, seated on top of a large pillow with a quill in one hand and a tablet in another. According to legend, the best way to appease the God was to feed him sticky cake which was his favorite. It was a way to bribe him so that he would provide a favorable report to the Jade Emperor. It would also seal his mouth shut and prevent an unfavorable report from reaching the ears of the Emperor.
Ingredients and Preparation
Traditionally, the cake was prepared with glutinous rice flour or mochi mixed with Chinese brown candy or peen tong, boiling water, Chinese dates, milk, sesame seeds and oil to produce a thick batter. This batter was steamed to make a thick cake. Regional variations also exist. Modern day Chinese recipes may bake the dough to cut down on cooking time.
- The Shanghai variation of the dish is simple. The white rice and sugar are used to make the dough. It is then shaped into a roll, sliced, and stir-fried or added to soup. This produces a very soft, chewy variety which can be served in sweet or savory versions. The stir-fried version is called as chǎo nián gāo and a savory version is prepared with scallions, pork and beef while the sweet version is prepared with white sugar only.
- In Hong Kong, the cake is also cut into slices, dipped into egg white and fried in oil before serving.
- The Guangdong version of the cake is prepared with rice and brown sugar. The paste is steamed and then served as a pudding with rosewater or red bean paste. It may also be stir-fried with egg or served as-is.
- In Malaysia, the sweet rice cake is called kuih bakul and served as a sandwich with sweet potato or taro.
- In the Philippines and Burma, it is referred to as tikoy or tikay.
- In Korea, it is referred to as tteokguk and served during the Korean New Year as a sweet meat.
This cake is very popular during the New Year and the round shape of the cake signifies family reunion and a rich, sweet life for all.