Chinese New Year is part of an annual festival celebrated in China and other Asian communities around the world. It's a lunar-based holiday, meaning that the date changes from year to year based on when the first new moon of the year happens, which is why you may also hear it called the Lunar New Year. It's the most important holiday in China, filled with traditions, customs, and festive food like the Chinese New Year cake.
What is Chinese New Year Cake (Nian gao)?
Chinese New Year begins between Jan. 21 and Feb. 20, on the appearance of the new moon. In 2021, the new year begins on Feb. 12 and ushers in the Year of the Ox. The most important and biggest event of the 15-day day festival is the reunion dinner on New Year's Eve. Family members return to their hometown and there's a huge dinner. It's a little like American Thanksgiving in practice, with the same kind of giant meal, focus on family dinner, and lots of traditional dishes.
One of those traditional dishes is the Chinese New Year Cake, or Nian gao. It's a kind of steamed sticky rice cake, with a mochi-like chewy texture. It's also a cake with meaning. Nian means year and gao means high or tall, so nian gao is a way of saying "higher year" or good luck.
The traditional nian gao recipe only has three ingredients: glutinous rice flour, brown sugar and water. To make the cake, dissolve the brown sugar in hot water and then pour the sugar water over the rice flour in a mixing bowl. Stir the mixture until it's smooth and free of any lumps. Grease a round cake pan with vegetable oil or coconut oil, then pour the batter into the dish.
This Chinese New Year cake is cooked by steaming, so you can use a traditional wok or other steamer pot, or you can use your Instant Pot or pressure cooker. Depending on the size of your steamer, you can use two or three smaller cake pans instead of one larger pan. Steam the nian gao for about an hour or until the cake is set all the way through. It will start to pull away from the sides of the cake pan.
You can store the nian gao at room temperature for 3-4 days, or refrigerate in an airtight container for a couple of weeks. You can reheat the cake in the microwave, or you can cut it into slices and pan fry until it's crispy. You can also use leftover nian gao in stir fry or sandwiches.