Welcome to The Storied Recipe!
My podcast guest Emily Ho shared this authentic Nian Gao (Glutinous Rice Cake) recipe with us. As you make it, I invite you to listen to this episode all about Lunar New Year traditions.
I made this Sticky Rice Cake recipe before treats like Bubble Tea and Mochi Ice Cream became popular in the US. So at first, I wasn't sure about the milky flavor and chewy texture. But then, I couldn't stop eating it!
Just like Emily, who shared this recipe with us, my favorite is the edges, where the flavor is concentrated and the texture is extra chewy.
Emily's recipe came from her Taiwanese aunt and it's a very basic, classic Nian Gao recipe. It is the perfect base for any variations.
Table of Contents (Jump To Section)
What To Expect (Flavor & Texture)
- If you've never eaten anything containing glutinous rice flour, one comparison is to a flan or crème brûlée. The textures are silky and smooth. However, this cake is much firmer than a custard. As you can see, it holds its shape.
- Emily Ho, who shared this recipe with us, describes the cake as "chewy, with a milky flavor and easy to swallow”.
To Make Vegetarian
It's easy to make this recipe vegetarian simply by substituting the evaporated or whole milk with coconut milk. Whichever brand you choose, make sure you use full fat coconut milk.
To Avoid Vegetable Oil
This recipe calls for vegetable oil, but any neutral oil will work just fine.
If you don't have Glutinous Rice Flour/Sweet Rice Flour/Sticky Rice Flour
(These three are essentially the same - see below for minor variations between brands.)
- If you must substitute the glutinous rice flour in this recipe, the best substitution will be cornstarch, tapioca, or potato starch.
- Do not substitute any type of wheat or grain flour.
- Also, do not substitute with rice flour - neither brown rice nor white rice flour.
Nian Gao and Chinese New Year
Sometimes referred to as "Chinese New Year cake", this is a popular dessert for Lunar New Year celebrations in many Asian countries, bringing good luck for the coming year. Here are some of the ways Nian Gao relates to the Lunar New Year Celebration.
- The name itself is actually a pun using the Chinese character “糕”. This character means cake, but the pronunciation of the character sounds very similar to “高”, which means "tall" or "high", or in other words: better and more prosperous. So when you put that character together with “年”, which means “year”, you have the double meaning of [New] Year's Cake AND Better Year. Pretty clever, right?
- In addition to this pun, there's a Chinese legend surrounding Nian Gao and the New Year. According to this legend, every kitchen has a kitchen god. In some versions of the legend, this kitchen god reports to a higher god. The Nian Gao sticks the kitchen god's mouth together and prevents them from saying anything bad about the household in which they reside. In other versions of the legend, the kitchen god is so pleased with the sweet cake, they refrain from causing mischief throughout the new year.
- Finally, Nian Gao is a popular gift to bring to neighbors when visiting during the week around the New Year celebrations. In fact, these cakes are so prolific, there are many popular recipes for Fried Nian Gao to use up leftovers.
All About Glutinous (Sticky, Sweet) Rice Flour
Regular Rice Flour (white or brown) vs. Glutinous Rice Flour
- These are NOT the same and can not be treated as the same. The process for producing each flour is the same - both are made by milling rice.
- However, rice (white or brown) has different properties to glutinous/sticky/sweet rice. Therefore, the flours made by milling each rice will be different. Glutinous rice will be stretchy, starchy, and sticky. Flour made from those rices will have the same properties.
- There are well over 6000 varieties of glutinous/sticky/sweet rices in the world!
- "Sticky rice" often refers to a specific variety of rice named Japonica. While Japonica is not technically a glutinous rice, it takes on the same properties when cooked. So "sticky rice" is still used interchangeably with "glutinous rice" or "sweet rice".
- For an exhaustive look at this topic, I highly recommend this post by Runaway Rice or this article in Wikipedia
Mochiko Brand Sweet Rice Flour vs. Erawan Glutinous Rice Flour
- For this recipe, Emily recommended the Erawan brand of Glutinous Rice flour. This is super easy to find in Asian Grocery stores (or on Amazon). It's in a transparent bag with green lettering and is clearly marked.
- Erawan brand is a Thai style of glutinous rice flour.
- For Esther's Water Radish Kimchi, I've also used Mochiko brand Sweet Rice flour. Although this is milled from a different variety of glutinous rice, it can also be used in this recipe. I found the Mochiko brand on Amazon.
- Again, I refer you to this excellent post from Runaway Rice that details the differences between brands.
Does Glutinous Rice contain gluten?
Actually, no! Like all other rices, glutinous rice is naturally gluten-free. The name comes from the fact that varieties of glutinous/sweet/sticky rices have a chewy texture when cooked, much like gluten provides in baked goods produced from wheat flours.
Are all glutinous rices the same?
Nope, there are lots and lots of different sticky/sweet rices. Long grain, short grain, purple, and white - in fact, as I mentioned above there are over 6530 different types of glutinous rices across the world! Read more in this post in Wikipedia
Steaming vs. Baking
- The traditional way to cook this cake is steaming in a bamboo steamer, which could take a very long time.
- Although this recipe calls for baking the cake in the over, the pan is first tightly covered with aluminum foil. So in a sense, this recipe steams the cake as well.
- Thanks to the oven, this is a very quick recipe - mixed, cooked, cool enough to eat in under 90 minutes.
- This is one of the simplest recipes you'll ever make! You just need a medium mixing bowl, cake pan, and an oven!
- Emily's family always made this in a Pyrex 7x11 pan. Personally, I thought a round cake was more photogenic, so I used this 8" metal pan cake pan.
- You could use something like these tart pans to make small glutinous rice cakes
- Keep at room temperature covered with plastic wrap for 3 days.
- Refrigerated, this is still edible for several months. A
- Try Egg Fried Nian Gao from What to Cook Today with leftovers.
Another Storied Recipe Using Sweet Rice Flour
This is a very restorative, healing recipe for all that New Year's bloat 😉
Recipe Contributor: Emily Ho
Emily Ho's family immigrated from Taiwan to the US. Enjoying Nian Gao at their Lunar New Year Celebrations is one way they retained a connection to their culture and family history.
Emily's Memories of Nian Gao
My mum first tried making this Taiwanese dessert when we were in middle school.
I grew to to love everything about it- the texture, the mild sweetness, and the milky smell from the evaporated milk.