Why do people eat sticky cake during Chinese New Year?

Called nian gao by the Chinese and tikoy by Filipinos, the dish is symbolic of prosperity and celebration

Sweet nian gao sticky cakes take many forms, but all are typically made from glutinous rice flour. Photo: Luna Wang / Unsplash
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Chinese New Year celebrations are rife with symbolism, from the 12 animals of the zodiac to the prosperity-inducing shades of deep red.

For many Chinese people celebrating Lunar New Year, sticky rice cake, or nian gao, holds symbolic importance. It has stood the test of time and bypassed borders.

“It's a delicacy that takes me back to beautiful memories of my grandmother's kitchen,” says Chinese national Ziying Zhou who lives between Dubai and London.

“I can vividly recall the sight of her meticulously making nian gao from scratch – from gathering the ingredients to preparing the stove for steaming.”

The most common type of nian gao is made of glutinous rice flour, which gives it a sticky consistency, similar to popular Japanese delicacy mochi. Sometimes made with sorghum or broomcorn, nian gao comes in varying flavours.

The earliest example of nian gao can be traced back to 386AD.

In Zhou's hometown of Shandong, China's second-most populous province in the east, the sticky cake is made from a type of yellow millet, she says.

“People use giant stoves to steam large amounts of nian gao at once, over firewood. They use pineapple leaves to add flavour,” explains Zhou.

“There's nothing quite like the taste of freshly made nian gao, served with a simple and tasty brown sugar dip,” Zhou says. Her family used to fry the leftovers the next day, she adds, which also makes for a tasty treat.

She says that although desserts are “not as prominent in Chinese culture”, nian gao is an enjoyable exception and many families have kept the tradition alive, especially come the new year.

An auspicious treat

Nian gao translates to “year cake”, and its pronunciation in Mandarin sounds similar to another phrase that means “a more prosperous year”. The food is associated with good luck and prosperity, making it a popular gift during the new year.

“I grew up in a strict household, and my mother never allowed chocolate at home. Nian gao is one of the only sweet foods we were allowed and that too only during new year celebrations,” says Zhou.

People have different interpretations of nian gao's symbolism. That it is round and sticky, for example, refers to strong familial bonds. The use of yellow millet in Zhou's hometown symbolises the opulence of gold.

Others inscribe lucky symbols on to the cake, such as a pair of carps for success or the Chinese character for prosperity. As a gift, nian gaos are usually boxed in red packaging printed with beautiful designs.

Nian gao in other cuisines

The impact of nian gao goes well beyond China, mostly because of its diaspora. Many of the country's Asian neighbours have adapted the tradition of serving these cakes during Chinese New Year, including in Indonesia where the dish is called kue keranjang or Chinese dodol, and in the Philippines where it's referred to as tikoy.

The South-east Asian country has a bustling Chinatown and people, even those with no Chinese connection, flock to stores selling boxes of tikoy every February.

“I grew up eating tikoy, although we are not Chinese,” says Hermi De Ramos, a Dubai resident from the Philippines. “My family has a barong [traditional Filipino attire] business, which often took us to Chinatown. We always buy boxes of tikoy, especially during Chinese New Year when peddlers swell in numbers,” he says.

De Ramos admits he and his family eat tikoy mainly “because it tastes good”, rather than for any cultural or superstitious reasons.

Although tikoy is made from commonly found rice flour, most Filipinos buy it ready-made. The cake is typically cut into thin rectangles, coated in beaten egg and fried to achieve a slightly crispy crust without overcooking the dough.

De Ramos moved to Dubai two years ago and often craves the Chinese delicacy. Thankfully, he says, many Asian supermarkets in the city stock it on their shelves, including WeMart in Deirah and a few Westzone branches.

However, Zhou, who studied in the UK, says she still “struggles to find the authentic taste of home, especially with my grandmother’s signature flavour”, having lived abroad for almost two decades.

“It’s like tracking down a flavour that is out of reach.”

Updated: February 04, 2024, 4:06 AM