February 22, 2018
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Rice Cake Resolutions

Like turkey is to Thanksgiving, nian gao have a time-honored spot on the table during the Chinese New Year.

年年高升 (nian nian gao sheng). Of all the auspicious sayings uttered over the Lunar New Year, this one has especially stuck with me since I was a kid. Meaning “Rise to greater heights year after year,” it sounds like the perfect mantra for living a lofty life, or the secret subtext to every self-help book ever written. My reverence for it, however, has much more gluttonous roots.

Many New Year sayings are rich in culinary and cultural symbolism. Take 年年有余 (nian nian you yu), for instance, which translates to “Have an abundance year after year.” Fish (鱼) is a popular New Year food, as its pronunciation, yu, is the same as abundance (余). Tang yuan (汤圆), sweet rice balls filled with black sesame paste, are eaten to signify reunion (团圆), similarly pronounced “tuan yuan.” So when it comes to nian gao (年糕), a sticky rice cake, it’s associated with growth and prosperity, stemming from 年年高升 (nian nian gao sheng).

Nian gao is traditionally made from a paste of glutinous rice flour, water and sugar, steamed for hours until caramelized into a dark brown mass. The result is a dense, tacky rice cake that resembles a block of dull English toffee, or a jellified brick of molasses—but what nian gao lacks in looks, it makes up for in taste and prosperous symbolism. And though there are other, more popular rice cakes throughout Asia, like mochi, Korean tteok and a white, savory variant of nian gao common in Shanghai, as the Lunar New Year approaches, this dark, sticky nian gao is prized like no other.

Wherever they’re sold, they’re decked out in festive kitsch—draped in crimson cloth and gilded ribbons, with red 福 (fu; meaning good fortune) doilies stuck on them, wrapped in hampers embellished with gold, or in plush boxes adorned with well wishes written in calligraphic brushstrokes. And every year, as Chinese families do, my parents would buy them by the dozen, mostly to gift to friends, relatives, neighbors, bosses, colleagues—anyone and everyone in their lives. But far from being mere gifts of courtesy, like fruitcake for Christmas or licorice in Halloween baskets, nian gao is meant for indulging.

The origins of nian gao date back to pre-Imperialist China (circa 480 BC), when the country was still fragmented into many warring states. Legend has it that a general by the name of Wu Zixu led the construction of the protective walls surrounding the Wu capital (modern-day Suzhou). During his tenure, he allegedly told his people to seek salvation beneath the walls in the event of a siege. Years after his death, the southern Yue state besieged the Wu kingdom, cutting off the capital’s food supply. Starvation was imminent, but the Wu people, reminded of their late general’s words, began digging under the walls, where they found blocks of age-old nian gao in place of the wall’s foundational bricks. Well preserved due to their hardy nature, these rice cakes saved the Wu capital from starvation, and Wu Zixu and his nian gao were revered from then on.

Like so many myths and legends, the commemorative meaning of nian gao has largely been lost over the past centuries. What has remained though, is its auspicious ties to the New Year. Just walk along the streets of Beijing, Shanghai, or the many Chinatowns of the world in the weeks leading up to the New Year, and you’ll find nian gao stacked high on storefront shelves of restaurants and grocers, sometimes even in salons, laundromats, and many other Chinese-owned businesses.

Beyond the flashy packaging, nian gao is a blank canvas for creativity. With a little heat and tender loving, this chewy rice cake transforms into an ethereal embodiment of the festive season. Most commonly, nian gao are dipped in a simple egg batter and fried on a skillet, turning crispy and caramelized on the outside and endlessly gooey on the inside, capable of rivaling the best grilled cheese. Or you’ll find it cut up into sticky, bite-size chunks and tossed in a blizzard of shredded coconut, nearly unrecognizable from its original form. And in Southeast Asia, it’s often wrapped in banana leaves before steaming, taking on an otherworldly fragrance to round out its sweet tenderness. Every new riff is a witty variation on the traditional but is nonetheless comforting in every form it takes.

Despite not having been back home in Malaysia for Lunar New Year in nearly a decade, I still feel a tug of desire for nian gao each time the holiday season rolls by. Walking through the lanterned streets of Leicester Square in London or passing by shops selling red decorations in Flushing in years past, they would call out to me, transporting me back to my 婆婆’s (grandma’s) house on New Year’s morning.

Back then, I would sit around the lopsided wooden table with all the other kids, dressed in our crisp new clothes, sparklers and Pop Pops by our sides, ready to initiate in bang snap battles at a moment’s notice. The old Singer radio would be playing classic New Year tracks, blaring over the distant din of the lion dance troupe out on the streets. My uncles and aunties would go around handing out red envelopes filled with money, offering them to their nieces and nephews in return for cheeky grins and empathic New Year greetings (unsurprisingly, nian nian gao sheng was my default). At some point in the midst of this festive cacophony, my aunties would bring in a hot tray of nian gao “sandwiches” and immediately retreat from the ensuing chaos as 20 hands reached for them at once.

Wedged between two slices of sweet potatoes, battered, then deep-fried—this was, and still is, my my favorite form of nian gao. Hot from the wok, I’d hold them in each hand between oil-soaked paper towels and take a bite. The crisp batter would shatter, giving way to the powdery sweet potato layers, neon orange and purple from the cooking. Before I knew it, the sweet center of molten nian gao would ooze out, scalding my lips. But each time, I would beam through huffs of steam and take another bite, bigger than the last.

For the first time in a while, I’m back home for the New Year. Though we’re no longer going back to my grandmother’s hometown, come New Year’s morning, I’ll be the one frying up those nian gao “sandwiches,” carrying on the time-honored tradition.


  • Nian Gao
  • 2 cups glutinous rice flour
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup dark brown/muscovado sugar
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, to brush ramekins
  • 1 banana leaf, optional, can be substituted with baking paper
  • Sandwich
  • 2 large orange sweet potatoes
  • 2 large purple sweet potatoes
  • Oil, for deep-frying
  • Batter
  • ¾ cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 tablespoons cornstarch
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 egg
  • ¾ cups water

These nian gao sandwiches are a classic Lunar New Year dish in Malaysia. The nian gao used here is a quicker adaptation of the traditional recipe, using dark brown sugar for a deeper caramel hit, which also helps cut down its cook time. As for the sandwiches, I prefer using sweet potatoes as I like the layers light and tender, but feel free to swap in yam or cassava, or try doing a double/triple stack!

    Nian Gao

  1. Ready three ramekins (5-to 6-inch ones would be perfect) and brush liberally with oil on the insides. Line the ramekins with the banana leaves/baking paper. If using banana leaves, blanch them in boiling water to soften, then cut the leaves into 3-inch wide strips and lay them over each other in the ramekin, overlapping at the bottom. (Use 6-8 strips of banana leaves to prevent leakage.)
  2. Place the water and brown sugar in a small saucepan and heat until the sugar completely dissolves. Remove from the heat and let cool.
  3. Sift the glutinous rice flour into the sugar syrup, and whisk until a smooth batter forms.
  4. Pour the batter into the lined ramekins, cover them with a lid or cloth (to prevent water from dripping in), then steam on high heat for 3 hours, until the nian gao is a deep caramel brown and firm to the touch.
  5. When done, remove from the steamer and let it cool down. Keep refrigerated for at least 3 days (or up to two week) to let it fully set and firm up.


  1. Slice the nian gao into ¼-inch thick slices. Peel the sweet potatoes and cut them into slices similar in shape and size to the pieces of nian gao. (Don’t worry if they’re not exactly the same, they’ll be just as lovely and gooey anyway!)
  2. Wedge the nian gao in between two slices of sweet potato (use an orange and a purple one for each sandwich), and give it a light squeeze to make sure they don’t separate.
  3. For the batter, sift the flour, cornstarch, baking powder, and salt together. Then add the egg and water to it. Whisk until smooth and all the lumps disappear.
  4. Ready a pot of oil or a deep-fryer set at 350°F.
  5. Dip the nian gao-sweet potato sandwiches into the batter, and then deep-fry in the oil for 3-5 minutes, until cooked through.
  6. Remove from the oil and place on paper towels to wick off the excess oil.
  7. Dig in! (Take care not to scald your lips on the molten nian gao!)

Yi Jun Loh

Yi Jun Loh is a freelance writer and cook. An engineer by training, he immersed himself into the food industry right after graduating from Cambridge, learning to cook in Paris and then at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York. He is now based in Malaysia, obsessing over food culture and science through his blog Jun & Tonic.

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