Ring in the Lunar New Year with Chinese New Year Cake or Nian Gao. A traditional steamed Chinese cake made from glutinous rice flour that’s incredibly delicious and full of rich family history!
**Special thanks to Mrs. Jenny Leong for sharing this wonderful recipe.**
Every once in awhile, an extraordinary recipe falls into your lap. That’s how I feel about this Chinese New Year Cake or Nian Gao. It’s truly special!
What is Nian Gao or Chinese New Year Cake?
Nian Gao is a traditional steamed Chinese cake that’s eaten in celebration of the Lunar New Year. It’s one of the many food items enjoyed during the weeklong celebration with family and friends. Like dumplings and oranges, Chinese New Year Cake represents prosperity or good luck.
Made with glutinous rice flour, the texture is soft and bouncy, like mochi. Chewy and stretchy, it’s very pleasing to eat. And, not too sweet!
This special cake goes by many names: Nian Gao, Sticky Rice Cake, Leen Goh, or Chinese New Year Cake. But Mrs. Leong’s version — made with Coconut Milk and a thin layer of red bean — is especially delicious!
- Glutinous Rice Flour. Creates that characteristically stretchy and slightly sticky texture. Regular Rice Flour is not the same! I use the Thai Elephant Erawan brand but you can also use Koda Farms Mochiko Flour. Also known as Sweet Rice Flour or Sticky Rice flour.
- Wheat Starch. Wheat starch is NOT the same as flour. Refer to the photo below for an easy visual cue.
- Red Bean Paste. You can buy red bean paste at the Chinese grocery store or you can make your own.
- Rock Sugar. A traditional Chinese sugar that crystalizes into clear-looking rocks of sugar.
- Bar Brown Sugar. A traditional Chinese sugar that is dark brown and dried into hard bars. If buying prepared red bean paste, you won’t need it.
- Canned Coconut Milk. Full-fat, canned coconut milk gives a beautiful milky-white hue and subtle flavor boost.
- Coconut Extract. A fragrant essential!
*Note: The recipe makes 3 cakes. If you think 3 cakes are too much, remember that the Lunar New Year is a time for sharing and gifting. Make one cake for yourself and give two away! Or, make all 3 sticky rice cakes and bring to your extended family gathering for the Lunar New Year. Leftovers are delicious when pan-fried in a little oil.
- Make the red bean paste. (Can be made the day before.)
- Make the sugar water. Cool at room temperature or in the fridge. (Can be made the day before.)
- Make the Coconut Milk Batter. Whisk together the (cooled) sugar water, glutinous rice flour, and wheat starch. Add coconut milk, coconut extract, and vegetable oil. Whisk until smooth and thick.
- Make red bean paste filling. Add some Coconut Milk Batter to the red bean paste. The texture should be like chocolate pudding. This makes it easier to spread.
- Get ready to steam the cakes. In this photo, I’ve set up 3 bamboo steamers in a wok, filled with water at the bottom. Grease 7-inch tinfoil pans (they actually measure 6 3/4 inch)with oil
- Steam 1st layer. Add 3/4 cup of Coconut Milk Batter to the bottom of all the tins. Steam until set, about 7-9 minutes. It’s ok if they are bumpy looking.
- Add Red Bean Paste Filling. Remove cakes from the steamer basket. Add Red Bean Paste Filling. Spread to the edges, leaving a 1/2-inch border.
- Steam 2nd layer. Gently pour additional Coconut Milk Batter directly on top. Steam until set and an inserted skewer comes out clean, about 45 minutes.
- Serve. Cool for 1 hour. Invert onto a platter and serve!
- Set up a steaming station. To steam all 3 cakes at the same time, you will need three tiers of steamer baskets — one steaming basket for each cake. Be very careful to set up the baskets evenly, as even a small tilt will result in slanted cakes! You can also steam the cakes one at a time. It will take longer this way but the method is the same. Refer to this guide for questions regarding how to steam food.
- Generously grease cake pans. To make the cakes easier to remove, make sure to grease the cake pans well! Mrs. Leong recommends disposable 7-inch tin pans, which actually measure 6 3/4 inches.
- Cool cakes. Before inverting onto a platter, cool for at least 1 hour. They should pop out easily when cooled.
- Store cakes in air proof container. The cakes will harden quickly, especially if exposed to air. Leftovers should be well-wrapped with plastic film. Store at room temperature for 1 day. Otherwise, keep in the fridge.
Nian Gao Family History
Perhaps a better name for this cake would be, Mrs. Leong’s Nian Gao. This is her Nian Gao recipe, which she generously shared with me. Different from the typical Chinese lunar new year cake, her version is made with Coconut Milk and a delicious layer of red bean filling in the middle.
Mrs. Leong’s recipe carries a long and notable history. Essentially, it remains true to its originator: an Admiral’s daughter born in China during the late 1800’s. A thoroughly modern woman, she had unbound feet and also worked as a medical doctor.
Amazingly, her recipe escaped civil war in China to arrive safely onto the harbored shores of Hong Kong. Then it traveled to Malaysia, where it received a coconut milk makeover. By the time this steamed Nian Gao recipe reached Canada, the grandchildren of the Admiral’s daughter were all making their own variations of this family dessert.
Ring in the Lunar New Year with this wonderful steamed cake! All that rich history and meaning, poured into a cake pan. All that tradition and family love, spanning continents and generations. A truly special cake to be enjoyed with family and friends!
How do I eat Nian Gao?
Nian Gao is best enjoyed on the day it’s made. The texture is perfectly soft and stretchy, bouncy and pliant.
Serve the cake as you normally would — on a platter and cut into wedges with a sharp knife. It will be sticky.
Once the cake loses its soft and pillowy texture, fry in a non-stick pan on medium low heat with a little vegetable oil. The outside will be delightfully crispy and the inside will become stretchy and soft once again.
Can I freeze Nian Gao?
Yes, Nian Gao freezes well. Cut into wedges to easily defrost the cake by individual portions. Otherwise, freeze the entire cake as is. Either way, tightly wrap in plastic film and place in an air-tight container.
To defrost, keep the cake at room temperature until soft and stretchy.
Or, pan-fry the frozen Nian Gao directly. Use a non-stick skillet and a little oil. The outside will be crispy and the inside will become stretchy and soft once again.
Coconut Nian Gao with Red Bean (Chinese New Year Cake)
- 3-tiered Steamer Baskets
- Wok or big pot (to fit steamer baskets)
- 3 7-inch tinfoil cake pans (they actually measure 6 3/4")
- Instant Pot (for red bean paste)
- Cast Iron Skillet or thick bottomed/non-stick pan (for red bean paste)
Red Bean Filling:
- 1/3 cup/ 2.5 oz/ 70 g (dried) red adzuki beans
- 1 1/3 cup water
- 40 grams/ 1 oz bar sugar
- 2-3 Tbsp vegetable oil
- 1/2 cup Coconut Milk Batter (see below)
- 15 oz rock sugar
- 1 1/2 cups water
Coconut Milk Batter:
- 2 cups/ 10 oz / 280g Glutinous Rice Flour
- 1 1/4 cup/ 6 oz / 170g Wheat Starch
- 1 cup/ 8 oz/ 250ml coconut milk (from a can)
- 1 tsp coconut extract
- 3 Tbsp vegetable oil (any neutral oil will work)
Red Bean Filling:
- Add dried red beans and water to the Instant Pot. Secure the lid and set Instant Pot to Bean function, 25 minutes. When the timer beeps, release the steam manually. If there's liquid, drain the beans in a sieve.
- Transfer cooked beans to a food processor. Pulse until fully pureed and smooth, scraping down the sides once or twice.
- Heat a cast iron skillet (or any other thick bottomed or non-stick pan) to medium heat and add 2 Tbsp oil. Add the pureed beans and sugar. (You can use a mortar and pestle or rolling pin to break the bar sugar into smaller pieces.) Using a spatula, cook down until a thick paste forms. In the beginning, the red bean puree will look loose and thin. After 10-15 minutes of constant stirring, it will thicken. When the red bean paste holds its shape and the spatula comes out clean, it's done. Cover and set aside to cool completely. (You can complete this step the day before.)
- In a small saucepan, heat water on medium heat. Add rock sugar and melt until fully dissolved, about 5-10 minutes. Stir from time to time. Boiling is not necessary. Cover and set aside to cool completely. (You can complete this step the day before.)
Coconut Milk Batter:
- In a large bowl, add glutinous rice flour and wheat starch. Add sugar water and whisk until smooth. Add coconut milk, coconut extract, and oil. Whisk until smooth and no lumps remain.
- Transfer 1/2 cup of the Coconut Milk Batter and add to the red bean puree. With a stiff spatula, mix until smooth. The texture should be similar to chocolate pudding. Roughly divide into thirds.
- Set up your steaming station. Stack a 3-tiered bamboo basket into a wok and fill with water. Heat the water on medium heat and wait until there are thick, steady clouds of steam.
- Note: the water should not be a roiling boil but it's not a gentle bubble either. There should be enough bubbles coming from the bottom of the wok/pot to provide steady, consistent steam. But not so much that it bubbles furiously and touches the bottom cake pan.
- Grease 3 tinfoil cake pans well with vegetable oil. (Any neutral oil works.) When the water is steaming, add 3/4 cup of Coconut Milk Batter to each pan. I transfer batter into a measuring cup, making sure it measures 3/4 cup exactly. Then I use a small spatula to scrape into the tinfoil cake pan. The batter is quite thick so scraping is a necessary step for measurement accuracy. Repeat for all cakes.
- Steam until the first layer sets, about 7-9 minutes. Gently shake the pan — there should be no jiggle. It's ok if it looks bumpy. If the first layer is too soft, the red bean filling will sink through the batter and be difficult to spread.
- Remove from heat and layer red bean filling on top. Make sure the red bean filling is evenly leveled and leave a 1/2-inch edge for sealing. Repeat for all cakes.
- Add additional 3/4 cup of Coconut Milk Batter directly on top. It should cover the red bean filling and go all the way to the edge. Repeat for all cakes. Steam until cooked through, an additional 45 minutes. Check the water, from time to time, to make sure the water does not run out. When a skewer comes out clean, it's done.
- Cool completely and invert onto a platter. Serve and enjoy! This cake tastes best the day it's made. Leftovers should be wrapped tightly with plastic wrap and placed in a air-tight container.