Nian gao, rice cake or New Year cake, is one of the many staple Chinese New Year snacks. The Chinese word for rice cake, or nian gao, correlates to the phrase “nian nian gao sheng,” meaning “elevating year after year” or “promotion year after year”. Some Chinese parents tell their children that eating this will help them grow taller too.
The tradition of eating rice cake dates back to the Spring and Autumn Period around 2,700 years ago, originating from the ancient Wu Country 吴国 located in today’s Suzhou 苏州. During the Jiangsu Province in Ningbo 宁波, households began to offer nian gao to the ancestors and gods. The Topolect 方言, written during the Han Dynasty, first recorded the term Gao 糕 in reference to the rice cake.
The Chinese construct elaborate spreads of offerings for the Kitchen God who, like Santa Claus, reports a “naught and nice” list to the Jade Emperor. The sticky situation of bribery operates most efficiently with sweets. Arrays of candy, red bean paste filled glutinous rice ball, and gooey maltose glue Zao Wangye’s lips together so he cannot talk. If the kitchen god opens with a mouthful of sweets, he must only say sweet and good things. Nian gao is just one of the very many means of bribery.
Nian gao is made of either sticky glutinous rice or yellow rice, giving nian gao two major colors and textures. They are typically savory in the South, and are steamed or cooked with vegetables and meat. Whereas in the North, the flavor of Nian gao is sweet, and the batter often includes lard, rose petals, osthmanthus, hibiscus and mint for extra flavoring. On most Beijing dinner tables, one is sure to find jujube nian gao, or 红枣年糕 hóng zǎo nián gāo.
In order to make nian gao, you must first prepare the red bean soup. Ingredients for the red bean soup include:
- 1 cup of rock sugar
- 4 cups of water
- 1 cup of red beans
- Soak red beans over night.
- The next day, bring soaked red beans, rock sugar, and water to a boil and turn to medium flame. Cook until red beans turn soft around 25 minutes. Set aside to cool for 10 minutes
Now begin the glutinizing process. Ingredients include:
- 3 cups glutinous flour
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- Mix 3 cups of glutinous rice flour, 1 ½ cups of the cooked red beans, 3 cups of the liquid red bean soup, and 1 cup of granulated sugar in a big bowl.
- Line parchment paper in a round baking pan (10” in diameter). Grease and pour in the mixture.
- Optional: place dates on top for decoration.
- Steam in boiling water for 45 minutes.
- Remove to cool, and cut into slices to serve.
- In the chance of any leftovers (highly unlikely), store in an airtight container for up to a week. Reheat in the microwave for 10 seconds.