Chinese food

Making Nian Gao with My Mum and a Masterchef Contestant

I've always loved nian gao—the steamed rice cake traditionally eaten at Chinese New Year—but have never attempted to make it. With some help from chef Ping Coombes (and my mum), I decided to give it a go.

by Angela Hui
15 May 2017, 9:07am

One Chinese New Year as a kid, I took a bite of nian gao so huge that I thought my teeth might never come unstuck. I can still remember the sheer panic as I attempted to loosen my jaw from around the dense steamed rice cake, mentally resigning myself to a life spent communicating via hand gestures and grunts.

Happily, the nian gao wasn't quite as glue-like as it initially felt and I managed to chew my way through the sweet starchy texture. This experience did nothing to deter my fondness for the dessert. At next year's New Year feast, I did the very same thing and dived in mouth-first.

Because when it comes to nian gao, it's hard not to bite off more than you can chew. Popular across Asia, the cakes are known for having an addictively sticky taste. They come in many shapes and sizes but the Cantonese style I'm familiar with looks like a wrinkled bronze medallion. It's made from glutinous rice flour, water, and brown rock sugar and is eaten at special occasions like weddings, as well as more everyday events like yum cha.

But the best time to eat nian gao is at Chinese New Year. In Cantonese, the name means "year cake," which also sounds a bit like the Cantonese for "year high." For this reason, many believe nian gao are lucky, leading to a higher income or position and a more prosperous year.

At traditional Chinese New Year prayer ceremonies, the cakes are also made as offerings to the Kitchen God. In Chinese mythology and Taoism, the Kitchen God is believed to report the activities of every household to the Jade Emperor, one of the highest Taoist deities. The rice cakes are meant to glue the Kitchen God's mouth together, preventing him from sharing your family's dirty secrets.

The author's mum, Jin Hui, with homemade nian gao. All photos by the author.

Whether to ward off blabber-mouthed gods or simply because more rice cakes means a more favourable year, every Chinese New Year without fail, my mum—Jin Hui—steams a mountain of nian gao to perfection. I ask her how she she does it.

"Where I'm from in South China, Guangdong province, nian gao is traditionally made with glutinous rice flour, wheat starch, brown rock sugar, and pomelo leaves soaked in water and steamed in a giant big pot," she tells me. "After it's steamed, you can either eat it plain, or dipped in egg and pan-fried for a temple offering. We'd usually pray and cut a slice of cake for relatives, so they can pass on their fortune to others for the year ahead."

The cakes can also be made with other types of sugar.

"I make mine with solid brown sugar cane, rather than finer sugars because we have a saying in Cantonese called 'teem teem mut mut' [甜甜蜜蜜], which translates to 'sweet as honey," she explains, "meaning that the sweeter the sugar, the sweeter life you'll lead and the stickier the cake, the closer your family ties are."

Sweet and sticky nian gao are enjoyed outside of domestic kitchens, too. Ping Coombes, former Masterchef contestant and chef at London pan-Asian restaurant Chi Kitchen, has long been a fan of the cakes.

"Legend has it that the ladies of my village [in Ipoh, Malaysia] would steam their nian gao in the middle of the night because it takes around ten to 12 hours to steam and they didn't want their neighbours to come and snoop," she tells me. "If the neighbours asked what they were making, the nosiness in asking would spoil the nian gao and affect how it turned out. That's why it's tradition for women to make nian gao in the middle of the night."

Most Asian regions have their own version of nian gao—not all of them involving nighttime cooking sessions. In Shanghai, the cakes are made as a savoury dish to be stir-fried with meat and vegetables. On the streets of Malaysia, they're served deep-fried and sandwiched between yams, and cooks in Vietnam wrap them in banana leaves.

Chef Ping Coombes slices nian gao.

The sliced nian gao is wrapped into spring rolls with banana.

Coombes offers to show me how they serve nian gao at Chi Kitchen.

"I'm going to be doing something a bit different from the traditional cake," she explains. "The ingredients are pretty accessible to anyone who wants to try this at home."

She starts by slicing nian gao she had prepared earlier into thin strips. She also slices bananas and wraps the two into a neat parcel using rice spring roll casings.

"I made this nian gao a while ago and it's probably seen better days, it's so old and hard," Coombes laughs, whacking the entire cake against the counter. "But don't be afraid to use it. The cake can last for months and you can still get plenty of good use out of it."

She's right—I can remember eating leftover nian gao long after our family's Chinese New Year feasts. After Coombes has folded the spring roll sheets around the nian gao and banana, she cuts another banana in half and uses it like a glue stick to them together.

"I learnt this trick from a Vietnamese friend of mine and it actually sticks better than water or eggs," she explains. "It works in either sweet or savoury dishes and you won't be able to taste the banana, it just helps bind everything together."

Deep-fried nian gao spring rolls, served dusted with icing sugar.

Once everything has been wrapped up, the nian gao parcels are deep-fried for a couple of minutes until golden brown.

"This nian gao dish is a pretty simple snack or a dessert to replicate at home," Coombes says. "You can serve it with ice cream and it's so moorish that you'll probably end up eating the lot."

Just make sure you take small bites.