It can be flavored in different ways and used in sweet or savory dishes (like this stirfried rice cake dish I love), but in this case, it’s slightly sweet. While most of the rice cakes I have eaten are steamed, there are also baked versions.
Nián gāo is typically eaten around the Chinese New Year (though Lunar New Year is a much more inclusive way to reference all the cultures and people who celebrate according to the lunar calendar) during the wintertime, hence why this is sometimes called Chinese New Year Cake.
Tōng yuen, sweet sticky rice dumplings filled with peanuts or sesame or red bean paste and served in soup, is another one of my Lunar New Year must haves!
How to Make It
This recipe is really easy, especially since the base of the nián gāo is four ingredients, three of which you likely have on hand at any time.
You already know that there’s glutinous rice flour (aka sweet rice flour) in here, so the other ingredients are for hydrating the flour and seasoning the cake.
Most recipes use water, but my aunt got me hooked on using a combo of water and coconut milk.
The only other ingredients you really need are salt and sugar. I got ambitious one year and tried adding some lemon zest and grated ginger, only to go back to the basics. Even though, I like my rice cake plain, you can play around with citrus zest, ginger, all spice, almond or vanilla extract, or another flavoring.
How to Cook It
Like I mentioned before, nián gāo can be steamed or baked; this recipe is specifically for steaming.
You can steam the cake in a pressure cooker, a steamer or a big pot with a small metal rack to prop up the pan of nián gāo. I’ve tried using a pressure cooker before, but based on how wide your pressure cooker and pan are, this can be a tight fit and hard to remove the hot pan once the rice cake is cooked through. I don’t have a steamer, either.
Therefore, I usually pick a pot that’s wide enough that you have some space to maneuver when you’re trying to take out the pan post-cooking. A big gap between the pot and pan sides is also helpful when you’re checking for doneness, since you can let the condensation drip off the lid into this gap instead of onto your stove or the top of the rice cake.
Inside the pot, I center a mini metal rack which helps keep the pan elevated so it doesn’t touch the pot and keeps any of the water boiling over into the rice cake. I pour in enough water so the level reaches about halfway up the rack’s legs.
When deliberating on a pan, I’m looking for something that’s as wide as I can get away with (while taking the pot size into account) and on the more shallow side. Thinner rice cake = the faster you get to eat. A bit of a lip on the edge of the pan also helps when you’re trying to take it out of the pot at the end.
I have a random 10-inch round cake pan that fits these requirements and has the Chinese character for longevity imprinted in, and it’s become my official nián gāo vessel. This pan (filled with batter) goes on top of the rack before you cover the pot with a lid and let it steam until a chopstick inserted into the center comes out clean.
When I DIY a steamer, it can take up to two hours to steam the cake, especially since I'm frequently adding new water which has to come back up to a boil (even if you're using hot water). Using a storebought steamer can speed up this process, and I've had the cake be done within 30 minutes.
The most nerve wracking part of the whole process is trying to remove the pan from the pot. I’m confident you hate burning yourself and/or dropping food as much as I do, so I can’t recommend this type of tongs (or an Asian kitchen plate retriever, apparently) enough. The little angled feet help snag underneath the pan lip and you can airlift your dessert to safety.
How to Store
If you’re going to eat it within a few days, you can leave it out at room temperature in a covered container.
If you’re going to eat it within a week, refrigerate the container.
It’s overall pretty forgiving, implied by this nugget from my great aunt: "If mold appear[ed] on the surface [of the nián gāo], [my mom] just wiped it off and considered that as a good omen because the word for mold growth sounds the same as the word for getting rich)." I can’t say I recommend, so take this advice with a grain of salt.
Yes, definitely! Wrap the nián gāo tightly in plastic wrap to make sure it doesn’t get any freezer burn, then freeze to your heart’s content.
It’s already flavored and seasoned, so there’s no need to add anything on top. I love eating it as a dessert or a snack, but the level of sweetness is so slight that I’m happy eating this for breakfast, especially when pan-fried in a light egg batter, which I will mention in a bit.
There are a few different methods you can use to reheat, depending on what texture you’re aiming for. If you want to eat it as close to the original texture as possible, I’d recommend re-steaming it (if you have the energy and patience) or microwaving it (if you’re lazy).
Pan-fried with Egg
However, this is my favorite way to reheat nián gāo. When the rice cake is fresh, it’s too soft to pan-fry, so I usually do wait to do it this way two to three days post-steaming. This is also my favorite way to cook store bought nián gāo.
I cut the rice cake into rectangles (about an inch thick, an inch wide, and a few inches long), dip them into beaten egg, then pan-fry until golden brown on both sides.
The most important part. The texture is chewy and bouncy, almost wet and sticky when it's fresh from the steamer. It’s not too sweet, and similar in sweetness to other Chinese desserts (rather than something like a European-style cake). The coconut milk adds a little perfume, but it’s nothing close to the intensity of a coconut macaroon.
I personally like my nián gāo best after a few days of aging, when the texture is firmer.
Dipped in egg and then pan-fried, it gets soft in the middle and crispy on the outside. There’s a reason why this is my favorite way to eat or re-heat nián gāo.
Nián gāo is an addictively chewy, slightly sweet Chinese dessert made with sweet rice flour. It's traditionally eaten during Lunar New Year!
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 1/2 cups boiling water
- 1 cup coconut milk
- grated orange zest or grated ginger, almond extract, vanilla extract, etc; optional
- 3 cups glutinous rice flour I use Koda brand sweet rice flour
Dissolve the sugar and salt in boiling water. Add the coconut milk and any flavorings you want, and mix until combined. Then add the rice flour and mix well into a paste. You're looking for something close to really thick peanut butter (think an un-stirred jar of natural peanut butter) or slightly wet cookie dough, so add more water as you see fit to reach this consistency.
Transfer the paste into a well-greased (I like using cooking spray, especially if you're trying to use a decorative pan) 10” round cake pan, smoothing as best as you can (it’s okay if it’s still lumpy on top).
Steam over medium-high heat until a chopstick inserted in the middle comes out clean. The cook time depends on what kind of steamer you're using; I've had the cake be done in 30 minutes when using a storebought steamer, and 2-2.5 hours using a DIY steamer.
Keep in mind that you might have to add more hot water occasionally, especially if you use a really short rack to elevate your cake pan and a shallow skillet (me). I keep a thermos of hot water on hand and add water 3-4 times throughout the steaming process.
Remove the cake pan from the steamer and cool completely. You may be tempted to drain off any water that may have dripped on top of the cake, but resist (or else you might accidentally plop the nián gāo out before you're prepared to).
Wrap the nián gāo in plastic wrap tightly. If you plan to eat it within a few days or you plan on eating it plain, then I'd recommend storing at room temperature. Otherwise, store in the refrigerator for up to a week.
If the nián gāo is really hard and starchy, cut it up into thin planks, dip in beaten egg, and pan-fry in a skillet until browned.
Recipe from my Aunty Myra!
Nián gāo is typically only sugar, water and rice flour, but you can add other flavorings if you want: citrus zest, fresh ginger, extracts. The only mod I like to make is swapping half of the water for light coconut milk, since it gives the nián gāo a bit more flavor, without changing the traditional flavor too much.