New Year’s Cake

Nian Gao is found in all the Chinatown bakeries as the “Year of the Snake” approaches. Made from glutinous rice flour, it is the ultimate play on words. The character “Nian” meaning “sticky”, sounds like the character meaning “year”. The character “Gao” meaning “cake” sounds like the character meaning “high”. Therefore, eating this “sticky cake” during the Lunar New Year will help one achieve great heights in the year to come.

Nian Gao can be eaten in thin slices, or dipped in egg and pan-fried in a bit of oil to warm and crisp it.

Nian Gao

3 1/4 cups glutinous rice flour (available in Asian markets)

2/3 cup dark brown sugar

8 ounces boiling water, plus additional for soaking dates

1 c. cup Chinese dates , also called Jujubes (available in Asian markets)

about half a cup of water, used as needed

1 tablespoon sesame seeds

1 tablespoon peanut, rice bran or canola oil


In a bowl, mix the boiling water and the sugar, stirring to dissolve. Let cool. Soak the Chinese red dates in boiling water to cover for 30 minutes. Drain, cut in half and remove pits.

Place the glutinous rice flour in a large bowl. Add the the dissolved sugar and water and combine to make a dough. Add a little water at a time, until you have a dough that feels smooth and looks shiny. Mix in about half of the red dates, setting the rest aside. Grease an 8-inch round cake pan with the oil. Place the dough in the cake pan and spread it out to the edges. Place the remaining red dates on top gently pushing them down onto the surface. Sprinkle the sesame seeds over the cake.

You can steam the cake in a wok, with a cake rack and a wok cover. Fill the wok with enough water to come to the bottom of the cake pan when placed on the rack. Bring the water to a boil. Place the cake pan on the rack, cover the wok with the lid, or with foil, and steam about 50 minutes.

Test by inserting a chopstick in the center (This is Chinese after all). It should come out clean, and the edges of the cake should have pulled away slightly from the sides of the pan. Loosen the cake with a knife, and use a spatula to remove to a plate. Cover with foil and refrigerate.

Serve in slices as is, or pan fry until slightly crisp.


written by Jim Becker, Chinatown Guide