What Is Nian Gao?

Geisha A. Legazpi

Nian gao is a popular Chinese dessert that has glutinous rice as its primary ingredient. This same ingredient is used to make other well-known Chinese glutinous rice dishes, such as tang yuan, ba bao fan, and zongzi. Nian gao is also well known as Chinese New Year’s cake. In English, the words literally mean “higher year,” which implies a sense of progress for the coming year. It is for this reason that this food is usually given as a lucky gift during Chinese New Year, and it is akin to wishing good fortune and prosperity to others.

Nian gao is often accompanied by taro cake.
Nian gao is often accompanied by taro cake.

There is no one official way to prepare or serve nian gao. The final appearance of nian gao pieces may not be uniform either. Nian gao is commonly grounded into a paste and formed into pie-like shapes, although some people prefer to mold it into various shapes and sizes. Some manufacturers add flavors and artificial colors in order to provide consumers with a wider selection to choose from.

Making nian gao from scratch is a long and arduous process, and requires approximately 7 hours of steaming. More often than not, consumers are able and prefer to buy ready-to-cook packs wherein they only have to be cut into pieces and stir-fried. In some instances, people may prefer to add egg and sugar to make the dessert more flavorful.

How to best serve this dish will also depend on a person’s culture or country. In Cantonese culture, or in countries such as Singapore and Malaysia, as well as in Hong Kong, this dessert is served as either an appetizer or dessert rather than as a main course dish. This dish may be accompanied by other popular dim sum dishes, such as water chestnut cake, turnip cake, and taro cake. In Japan, a variant of the dessert called mochi is served as a snack food throughout the year, not only at New Years.

In China, the New Year or Spring Festival is considered the most important occasion of the year, and eating nian gao is just one of the many ways the Chinese celebrate this special event. Nian gao is also called sticky rice cake, which is the traditional Spring Festival dish served in the southern regions of China. Those from the northern region prefer to eat jiao zi instead.

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