Nian Gao

published Jan 21, 2022
Nian Gao Recipe

A chewy, sticky, traditional steamed Chinese cake to celebrate Chinese New Year.

Serves16

Prep10 minutes

Cook1 hour 10 minutes to 1 hour 20 minutes

Jump to Recipe
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nian gao, whole, at table
Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Anna Stockwell

Nian gao (Mandarin for “higher year”) is a traditional steamed Chinese cake most often eaten at Chinese New Year. It’s unassuming-looking but super delicious: sticky, chewy, and not too sweet. The cake comes together with only a handful of ingredients — Chinese slab brown sugar, water, sweet rice flour, and vegetable oil — but many generations of cooks have iterated on this formula to produce their own unique versions. I remember my grandmother making nian gao when I was a child, and I always looked forward to getting a piece, especially if it was pan-fried. Here’s my easy version, which has a very soft, chewy texture similar to mochi and is both gluten- and dairy-free.

The Ingredients You’ll Need for Nian Gao

  • Rice flour: Sweet white rice flour, glutinous rice flour (which doesn’t actually contain gluten), or mochiko flour all work here. I prefer a Thai brand of rice flour, which is very fine. Don’t use regular rice flour, which won’t cook up chewy and sticky. You’ll need one pound, so go by weight, as the various rice flours can measure out differently by volume.
  • Chinese brown slab sugar: Made out of sugarcane, this type of sugar is sometimes labeled Chinese brown candy. You’ll break the planks into smaller pieces with your hands to help them melt faster. Two cups of dark brown sugar can be used instead, but the flavor won’t be as strong.
  • Coconut milk: Even though you won’t taste the coconut, using unsweetened coconut milk as some of the liquid keeps the nian gao soft and adds richness.
  • Salt and vanilla extract: I like a touch of salt to bring the flavors together, and a little bit of vanilla extract, too (although that’s optional).
  • Toppings: Sesame seeds are usually sprinkled on top, which I like as a pretty garnish, and you can also add dried jujube halves for a splash of color — and luck in the new year.
Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Anna Stockwell

How to Make Nian Gao

First of all, make sure you have a steamer that can hold an eight or nine-inch cake pan or baking dish and has a lid that completely covers the steamer and the pan completely. I use my wok, but any other large steamer also works well.

To make the nian gao, first melt the sugar in water on the stovetop. If you’re using Chinese brown slab sugar, this may take awhile, so be patient and don’t let the water come to a boil. Add coconut milk, salt, and vanilla extract, then let the mixture cool slightly. Pour into the rice flour and whisk, whisk, whisk until smooth! I think of this as a good arm workout, but you can also mix it in a stand mixer with the whisk attachment on low speed. If there are any stubborn lumps larger than a sesame seed, strain them out.

Transfer the batter to a greased cake pan or baking dish and steam over medium until set, which will take about an hour. When you poke the top of the cake in the middle, it should feel firm but the top will be sticky until cooled. Top with the sesame seeds and jujubes, and let cool before serving.

How to Serve Nian Gao

You can slice and eat the nian gao immediately after it’s cooled. It will stay soft for up to two days at room temperature if wrapped well in plastic wrap. The cake tends to stick to the knife, so I like to lightly grease the knife with vegetable oil before slicing. You can refrigerate it if keeping it longer than two days, but know it will firm up significantly.

The other popular way to eat nian gao is to pan-fry the slices until crispy, which I highly, highly recommend — especially if you’ve refrigerated it. The pan-fried slices are crispy on the outside and have a gooey, almost melted marshmallow texture inside. For a more savory version, dip the slices in beaten egg before pan-frying. Make sure to use a nonstick pan for either version, or the slices will stick.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Anna Stockwell

Nian Gao Recipe

A chewy, sticky, traditional steamed Chinese cake to celebrate Chinese New Year.

Prep time 10 minutes

Cook time 1 hour 10 minutes to 1 hour 20 minutes

Serves 16

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

  • 1 (1-pound) package

    Chinese slab brown sugar or brown candy, or 2 cups packed dark brown sugar

  • 1 1/2 cups

    water

  • 1/2 cup

    full-fat canned unsweetened coconut milk

  • 2 tablespoons

    vegetable or canola oil, plus more for coating the pan and pan-frying

  • 1 teaspoon

    vanilla extract (optional)

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    kosher salt

  • 1 pound

    sweet white, glutinous, or mochiko rice flour

  • 3/4 teaspoon

    toasted white sesame seeds

  • 4

    dried Chinese red dates, also known as jujubes, for garnish (optional)

  • Beaten eggs (optional)

Instructions

  1. Break up 1 pound Chinese slab brown sugar into rough 2-inch pieces with your hands and place in a medium saucepan, or use 2 cups packed dark brown sugar. Add 1 1/2 cups water and bring to a simmer over medium heat (do not let it come to a boil), stirring until the sugar is completely dissolved.

  2. Remove the saucepan from the heat. Add 1/2 cup coconut milk, 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract if desired, and 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, and whisk until combined. Let sit for 10 minutes to cool slightly. Meanwhile, place 1 pound sweet rice flour in a large bowl. Coat an 8- or 9-inch round or square cake pan or baking dish with vegetable oil. Prepare a steamer that will fit the pan for steaming.

  3. Bring the water in the steamer to a boil over medium-high heat. Meanwhile, while whisking constantly, slowly add the sugar mixture to the flour mixture in 3 increments. Continue to whisk until the mixture is smooth, it will take a few minutes to fully combine. Very small lumps the size of sesame seeds are OK, but if there are larger lumps, strain through a fine-mesh strainer to remove them. Pour into the cake pan or baking dish.

  4. Place the pan in the steamer. Reduce the heat to medium, cover, and steam until firm and the center is set when pressed (the top will still be a little sticky), about 1 hour total. Check halfway through and add more water to the steamer if needed. Meanwhile, if using Chinese red dates, halve 4 lengthwise and pit if needed.

  5. Place the pan on a wire rack. Sprinkle with 3/4 teaspoon toasted white sesame seeds. Place the dates cut-side down on the cake if desired. Let cool completely, at least 2 hours or up to overnight (cover the pan once the nian gao is mostly cooled if cooling overnight).

  6. Run a thin knife around the nian gao to loosen. Slide the knife under the nian gao to lift it up slightly. Slide your hand under the slab and remove it from the pan to a cutting board right-side up. Cut in half, then cut crosswise into 1/4 to 1/3-inch thick slices. It can be served as is or pan-fried.

  7. To pan-fry (optional): Heat a thin film of vegetable oil in a nonstick frying pan over medium heat until shimmering. Add a single layer of nian gao slices but do not let them touch. Pan-fry until browned and crisp, 3 to 4 minutes per side. (If desired, dip each slice in beaten egg to completely coat before adding to the pan.)

Recipe Notes

Storage: The nian gao can be tightly wrapped in plastic wrap when cooled and stored at room temperature for up to 2 days. After 2 days, it can be refrigerated for up to 3 days more but will harden and is best pan-fried to refresh.