Nian Gao – sticky rice cake for Chinese New Year (gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan)

Chinese_New_Year_sticky_rice_pudding
Nian Gao (sticky cake). Image: Kathryn Hawkins

I discovered this sweet treat for the first time last year. The texture is soft and gelatinous, a bit like Turkish Delight. It is teeth-janglingly sweet, so a little goes a long way, but the rich, treacly flavour is strangely addictive. I dare you to try it.

To achieve the right texture, you do need to use the right ingredients, so you may need to make a trip to a Chinese supermarket or research online suppliers. However, good news: there are only four ingredients, and one of those is water! You must use glutinous rice – a fine white powder, full of starch (and don’t worry, no gluten!) – I have tried this with ordinary rice flour and the texture was grainy and quite solid. The brown sugar you use is up to you; the depth of colour and flavour  of the finished cake will depend on how dark the sugar is. This year, I used coconut sugar and the result is, as you see above, very dark, glossy and treacly. The only other ingredient is coconut milk, and I use the canned variety.

Once cooked and cooled, Nian Gao is traditionally cut into slices, dipped in egg and pan-fried until lightly golden all over. It is served with red and gold decorations for luck. I’m not an egg lover, so I don’t do the frying part; I eat the cake about an hour after cooking, just as it is. Lovely.

Bag_of_Chinese_glutinous_rice_flour
Glutinous rice flour. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

Other than the ingredients, you just need a couple of tins or dishes, lined with baking parchment, to cook the mixture in, and a steamer for cooking.

Prepared_tins_for_steaming
Lined 10cm diameter tins for Nian Gao. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

Makes 2 x 10cm cakes (serves 3-4)

  • 100g brown sugar
  • 100ml water
  • 100ml canned coconut milk
  • 100g glutinous rice flour
  1. Line 2 x 10cm tins or dishes with circles of baking parchment – you will need to crease the paper to make it sit snuggly inside. Put the sugar and water in a small saucepan, and heat, stirring, until dissolved. Raise the heat and simmer for 5 minutes until lightly syrupy. Cool for 10 minutes then stir in the coconut milk.
  2. Bring a steamer to the boil, or you can use a saucepan of water fitted with a steaming compartment. Reduce the water to a simmer.
  3. Sift the rice flour into a bowl and make a well in the centre. Gradually pour and whisk in the sugary milk, until well blended, and the mixture resembles a smooth pancake batter.
  4. Divide the batter between the 2 tins or dishes, and arrange in the steamer. Cover loosely with a sheet of baking parchment and then put the lid on top. Leave to cook in the steam for 30 minutes until firm and glossy, like set, thick custard.

    How_to_make_Nian_Gao
    Preparation and cooking Nian Gao. Images: Kathryn Hawkins

5. Remove the cakes from the steamer and leave to cool for 10 minutes, then take out of the tins and place on a wire rack to cool. If you’re going to present the cakes, you might like to leave them in the parchment and tie with red ribbon. A flake of gold leaf on top gives the perfect finishing touch.

This is how I like my Nian Gao, still slightly warm, cut up into small chunks, and served with fresh fruit. Happy Chinese New Year!

Sticky_rice_cake_with_fresh_mango
My favourite way to serve Nian Gao, with fresh mango. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

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