What Is Chinese New Year Cake?-Nian Gao

The Chinese New Year is perhaps one of the biggest festivals celebrated in Chinese culture. It’s a 15-day-long celebration between January 21-February 20 on the Western calendar. It usually begins during the new moon and ends when the full moon comes out, hence sometimes it’s referred to as the Lunar New Year.

Along with this major celebration, some traditions come with it. The traditions involve acts that chase away evil and bad luck and usher in good fortune, health, and prosperity. Everything from decorations to the cuisine has some symbolism. Eating the Chinese New Year cake is an especially important New Year tradition.

The Chinese New Year cake is said to bring good luck when eaten hence is an important part of the New Year’s celebration in China. This post will focus on the Chinese New Year’s cake. To understand its meaning and role in the festivities, we will cover its meaning, why it is eaten, how, and the different types. As a bonus, we will also share a simple recipe for you to try to make at home.

What Is Nian Gao?

Sometimes referred to as Year cake, Nian Gao is the Chinese name for the New Year’s cake eaten during the celebrations. It is a dessert made from glutinous rice and therefore can also be simply called a rice cake.

The Chinese term Nian Gao directly translates to sticky rice, it’s also a homonym for the term “higher year”. Although the word Nian means ‘sticky’ it is similar to a Chinese sound that stands for Year. The word Gao means cake but is also similar to the Chinese sound High. As such even the greetings during the Chinese New Year is Nian Nian Gao Sheng, which is wishing a person advance to higher positions and prosperity.

The cake has a long history that dates back over 1000 years ago, where it was initially offered as an offertory to the ancestors. This was during the Zhou dynasty when the concept of ‘year’ had been developed. During the Tang dynasty, people had begun eating Nian Gao as a traditional dish during the New year and Spring festival. By the Ming and Qing dynasties, up until the present day, it’s become a popular snack, eaten at any time all year, but it remained a special dish during the new year.

Why Eat Nian Gao?

Many legends try to explain the origin of Nian Gao and how it came to be the traditional food for the Chinese New Year. One of the legends was that in the early periods, there existed a monster called Nian, with a long head and sharp horns. Legend had it that although the Nian lived in the wilderness, it would come to terrorize the villagers every New Year’s Eve. The Nian would destroy their house and kill any villagers. To protect themselves a clever man called Gao advised the people to make rice brick a

nd placed them outside their house and hide inside. When the Nian came that year and couldn’t find anyone outside, it ate all the rice bricks and left. This allowed the villagers to finally celebrate the new year. Over time those rice bricks became the Nian Gao today.

Given its meaning of “higher year”, Nian Gao is said to symbolize prosperity. It is believed that by eating it at the beginning of the year, one is likely to get a higher income, higher position, better growth, and generally a promising year ahead.

The man colors of Nian Gao are also white and yellow. In Chinese culture, the color yellow is also seen to represent gold and white represents silver. As such the cake is said to represent the god of wealth. Therefore, by eating it during the New Year, the Chinese believe they are welcoming good fortune for the new year ahead.

How To Eat Chinese New Year Cake?

There are many ways in which the Chinese New Year cake is eaten. It can be steamed baked or pan-fried. Other ingredients like peanuts and sesame can be added to the top of the cake. These variations depend on the region where the Nian Gao is made.

The Cantonese for example, normally deep the Nian Gao into eggs before pan-frying them. Given how widespread the cake has become across Asian countries, there are even more variations of the cake. In Malaysia for example, the Nian Gao is eaten with a slice of sweet potato sandwiched between two slices of the cake. All of it is covered in flour and pan-fried.

A common factor that cuts across all regions is that the cake can never be eaten cold. That’s because the Nian Gao is majorly made from sugar and rice flour, which become had when it cools and solidifies. It becomes hard enough to potentially injure your teeth.

Types Of Chinese New Year Cake

As mentioned earlier, over the year the preparation of Nian Gao has evolved leading to the many variations that exist in different regions today. The following are some of the common varieties you’re likely to find:

Shanghai Nian Gao

This type of New Year’s cake is made by mixing rice and glutinous rice, depending on a person’s preference of how soft it should be. The cake is made by steaming or frying it as a whole or in slices. In some areas, the cake can be served with pickled pork soup, or made as shepherd’s pie, or cut up into ribs and fried. Commonly, however, the Shanghai Nian Gao is served with Chinese cabbage, pork, scallions, and beef.

Guangdong Nian Gao

Also known as Cantonese style Nian Gao. It has a distinct dark yellow color given that it’s made using brown sugar. The cake is made by steaming until it solidifies. From here it can be served as is in thick slices of it can be dipped in eggs and pan-fried.

Northern Chinese Nian Gao

The overall taste of this type of Nian Gao is sweet. It is usually either made by steaming or frying. Depending on the northern region, some add red or green beans or red dates for decorations. Other’s use jujube paste as filling, while others make the cake from sticky sorghum and beans.

Fujian Nian Gao

This style is similar to the Malaysian style. The cake is made from taro and glutinous rice. It is usually pre-sliced before it is fried and usually is fried with sweet potatoes after wrapping it in cornflour.

How To Make a Chinese New Year Cake?

To be able to enjoy Nian Gao from the comfort of your house, we want to share with you the simplest recipe you can use, with only 3 ingredients and a few steps to follow.

What you’ll need:

  • 2 cups of water
  • 400 grams of glutinous rice flour
  • 300 grams of dark brown sugar

Start by boiling the water and then adding in the sugar and mixing until it has completely dissolved. Take it off the stove and let the sugar syrup completely cool. From there stir in the rice flour in bits, ensure it’s properly mixed. Whisk the batter until it’s smooth with no lumps and pour the batter into your already greased cake mold. Steam the batter for about an hour or until the cake pulls away from the mold and solidifies. At this point, the cake should be solid but still soft. You can eat the cake as is or dip it in egg and flour and panfry it. To keep it for later, simply wrap the Nian Gao in plastic wrap and store it in the fridge.


Although you can always find Nian Gao served in restaurants or street carts all through the year, visiting China during the New Year festival is the best time to try the Nian Gao. The food, coupled with the colors, parades, and other festivities adds up to an amazing unforgettable experience of the Chinese culture.

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