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

Happy Chinese New Year! 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.

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.

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.

    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!

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

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