Nian Gao (Chinese New Year Cake)

Difficulty Hard

Celebrate the Lunar New Year with Nian Gao! Also known as Chinese New Year Cake, it’s a traditional steamed cake made with glutinous rice flour. A not-too-sweet and slightly sticky cake filled with a delicious layer of red bean paste. The chewy texture and fragrant coconut milk make this such a special treat! A popular dessert representing prosperity and good luck, it’s enjoyed with family and friends at Chinese New Year celebrations.

What is Nian Gao or Chinese New Year Cake?

Nian Gao, also called Chinese New Year Cake, is a glutinous rice cake eaten during the Lunar New Year. A symbol of prosperity and good luck, it’s a way to welcome the coming year.

Nian Gao is a homonym for “higher year.” Eating this sticky and sweet cake symbolically invites more luck, good fortune, and wealth in the new year.

Unlike the standard North American cake, Chinese Nian Gao is made with glutinous rice flour. The cooking process also involves steaming rather than baking. The final result is more like a sweet sticky rice cake. Soft with a chewy texture, it’s quite bouncy and stretchy — like mochi.

This cake goes by many names: Nian Gao, Sticky Rice Cake, Leen Goh, or Chinese New Year Cake. A popular dessert with many variations, including brown sugar nian gao or baked nian gao (like Black Sesame Mochi Cake or Coconut Mochi Cake).

My recipe — which comes from the Leong family and spans 4 generations — is made with Coconut Milk and a thin layer of red bean paste. Delicious!

Enjoy your Chinese New Year celebration with this special cake!

close up of chinese new year cake (nian gao)

Ingredients:

*All items can be found at the Asian market or Asian grocery store.

  • Glutinous Rice Flour. Made from glutinous rice that’s finely ground into flour. Different from wheat flour, it creates that stretchy, chewy texture. Also known as sweet rice flour or sticky rice flour. Regular Rice Flour is not the same! Recommended brands: Thai Elephant Erawan or Koda Farms Mochiko Flour.
  • Wheat Starch. A thickener — similar to corn starch — helps stabilize and bind the batter. Look at the photo below for the recommended brand.
  • Rock Sugar. Also called rock candy, it’s a form of crystalized sugar. A common sweetener in Asian drinks, it melts beautifully with no grainy texture whatsoever. The color ranges from clear to pale yellow. If you can’t find it, swap with regular white granulated sugar.
  • Coconut Milk. Full-fat, canned coconut milk gives a beautiful milky-white hue and subtle flavor boost.
  • Coconut Extract. A fragrant essential!
  • Adzuki Beans. Dried adzuki beans, also called sweet red beans, are necessary for making homemade red bean paste. *If buying prepared red bean paste, you won’t need it.
  • Bar Brown Sugar. To make homemade red bean paste, you need Chinese bar brown sugar. Also called brown sugar slabs, it’s dark brown sugar dried into hard bars. A traditional way to sweeten foods. Swap with dark brown sugar if you can’t find it. *If buying prepared red bean paste, you won’t need it.

*Note: The recipe makes three cakes. If you think three 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 cakes and enjoy at your extended family gathering for the Lunar New Year. Leftovers are delicious when pan-fried in a bit of oil.

Instructions:

1. Make red bean paste. Cook red beans (in the Instant Pot or stovetop) until soft and creamy. Transfer to a food processor and pulse until pureed. In a non-stick skillet, add 2 Tbsp oil, the pureed beans, and broken pieces of brown sugar slab. Cook, stirring frequently, until the sugar is dissolved and the pureed bean has thickened. (Can be made the day before.)

2. Make the sugar water. In a medium saucepan, melt the rock sugar in water. Cool at room temperature or in the fridge. (Can be made the day before.)

3. Make Nian Gao Batter. In a large mixing bowl, measure the glutinous rice flour and wheat starch. Add cooled sugar water, coconut milk, coconut extract, and vegetable oil. Whisk until smooth and thick.

4. Make red bean paste filling. Add 1/2 cup of Nian Gao batter to the red bean paste. The texture will become more fluffy and easy to spread.

5. Set up the steaming station. Arrange a bamboo steamer over a wok or stock pot. Fill the bottom with 2 inches of water. Make sure the water does not touch the bottom of the steamer basket. *To steam three cakes simultaneously, you’ll need three bamboo steamers. Otherwise, you’ll need to steam the cakes one at a time. Refer to this steaming guide for questions regarding how to steam food.

6. Steam 1st layer. Add 3/4 cup of Nian Gao Batter to the greased tins. Steam until the batter is set, about 7-9 minutes.

7. 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. *Make sure the red bean is evenly spread into a thin layer.

8. Steam 2nd layer. Gently pour more Nian Gao Batter on top. Steam until set and an inserted skewer comes out clean, about 45 minutes.

9. Serve. Cool for 1 hour. Invert onto a platter and serve!

PRO Tips:

  • Watch the water level. While the cakes steam, you may need to add more water. Check the water level and make sure it doesn’t evaporate completely. If needed, add boiling hot water from an electric tea kettle so the water temperature does not drop too much.
  • Level the steamer baskets. When steaming, make sure the baskets are level. Even a small tilt will result in slanted cakes.
  • Generously grease cake pans. To make the cakes easier to remove, grease the cake pans well. Use a pastry brush to get into every nook and cranny.
  • Adjust steam level. If the steam is too strong, it will create a bumpy texture in the cake. To avoid bumps, adjust the steam level by lowering the heat. However, if the steam is too weak, cooking will take longer. The water should be simmering with small bubbles breaking the surface — not boiling hard with large, bouncing bubbles.
  • Use foil pans. The recipe calls for 7-inch round foil pans. Foil pans easily fit inside a bamboo steamer. They are also thin and light, making them ideal for steaming Chinese New Year’s cake.
  • Store cakes in airtight containers. The cakes will harden, especially if exposed to air. Leftovers should be wrapped with plastic film and placed in an airtight container. Store at room temperature for 1 day. Otherwise, keep in the fridge.
chinese new year cake with red bean filling

Mrs. Leong’s Nian Gao

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. Unlike the typical New Year’s 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 travelled to Malaysia, where it received a coconut milk makeover. By the time this steamed Chinese cake 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 beautiful steamed cake! All that rich history and meaning poured into a cake pan. All that tradition and family love spanning continents and generations. An extraordinary cake to be enjoyed with family and friends!

chinese new year cake with pieces cut out

FAQ:

How do I eat Nian Gao?

Serve the cake as you normally would — on a platter and cut into wedges with a sharp knife. It will be sticky.

Nian Gao is best enjoyed on the day it’s made. The texture is perfectly soft and stretchy, bouncy and pliant.

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.

More recipes to celebrate the Lunar New Year:

**Special thanks to Mrs. Jenny Leong for sharing this wonderful recipe.** Every once in a while, 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!

plate of chinese new year cake (nian gao)

Nian Gao (Chinese New Year Cake)

Mrs. Jenny Leong + Lis Lam
Celebrate the Lunar New Year with Nian Gao! Also known as Chinese New Year Cake, it's a traditional steamed cake made with glutinous rice flour. A not-too-sweet and slightly sticky cake filled with a delicious layer of red bean paste. The chewy texture and fragrant coconut milk make this such a special treat! A popular dessert that represents property and good luck, it's enjoyed at Chinese New Year celebrations with family and friends.
5 from 1 vote
Prep Time 1 hour
Cook Time 1 hour
Cooling time (for sugar water + red bean filling) 4 hours
Course Dessert
Cuisine Chinese
Servings 18 big slices or 3 cakes (6 slices each)
Calories 320 kcal

Equipment

  • 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)

Ingredients
  

Red Bean Filling:

  • 1/3 cup/ 2.5 oz/ 70 g (dried) red adzuki beans
  • 1 1/3 cup/ 307 ml water
  • 40 grams/ 1 oz bar sugar
  • 2-3 Tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup Nian Gao Batter (see below)

Sugar Water:

  • 15 oz rock sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups/ 350 ml water

Nian Gao 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)

Instructions
 

Red Bean Filling:

  • Cook red beans. Add dried red beans and water to the Instant Pot. Secure the lid and set the Instant Pot to Bean function, 25 minutes. When the timer beeps, release the steam manually. The beans should be soft and creamy; the liquid should be fully absorbed.
  • *The beans can also be cooked on the stovetop. Soak the dried beans in water for 8 hours or overnight. In a medium saucepan, add rehydrated beans and water. Cook (covered) until soft and creamy, about 1 – 1.5 hours.
  • Puree beans. Transfer cooked beans and remaining liquid to a food processor. Pulse until fully pureed and smooth, scraping down the sides once or twice.
  • Cook red bean paste. Heat a non-stick pan or cast iron skillet to medium heat and add 2 Tbsp oil. Add the pureed beans and broken up pieces of the brown sugar slab. (You can use a mortar and pestle or rolling pin to break the bar sugar into smaller pieces.) Cook down until a thick paste forms, stirring frequently. 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.)

Sugar Water:

  • Make sugar water. 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. (You can complete this step the day before.)

Nian Gao Batter:

  • Make batter. In a large bowl, add glutinous rice flour and wheat starch. Add sugar water, coconut milk, coconut extract, and oil. Whisk until smooth and no lumps remain.
  • Add batter to red bean filling. 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.

Steam Cakes:

  • Set up your steaming station. Stack a 3-tiered bamboo basket into a wok and fill with 2 inches of water. Make sure the water does not touch the bottom of th steamer basket. 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 with hard, bouncing, large bubbles breaking the surface. Instead, aim for a gentle simmer with small bubbles.
  • Grease foil pans. While the water comes to a boil, grease 3 foil pans with vegetable oil. (Any neutral oil works.)
  • Add 1st layer. 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 foil pan. The batter is quite thick so scraping is a necessary step for measurement accuracy. Repeat for all cakes.
  • Steam 1st layer. 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.
  • Add red bean filling. 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 2nd layer. Add additional 3/4 cup of Coconut Milk Batter directly on top. It should cover the red bean filling and spread all the way to the edge. Repeat for all cakes.
  • Steam 2nd layer. Steam until cooked through, an additional 45 minutes. Check the water, from time to time, to make sure it does not run out. When a skewer comes out clean, it's done.
  • Cool and serve. Cool for at least 1 hour. 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.

Video

Notes

*The recipe makes 3 cakes. If you think 3 cakes is too much, remember that the Lunar New Year is a time for sharing and gifting. Make one cake for yourself and give two cakes away! Or, make all 3 cakes and bring them to your extended family gathering for the Lunar New Year.
**The cake will harden over time, even if well-wrapped. Once the cake loses its soft and pillowy texture, dip in egg wash and fry in a non-stick pan.
PRO Tips:
  • Level the steamer baskets. When steaming, make sure the baskets are level. Even a small tilt will result in slanted cakes.
  • Use foil pans. The recipe calls for 7-inch round foil pans. Foil pans easily fit inside a bamboo steamer. They are also thin and light, making them ideal for steaming Chinese New Year’s cake.
  • Store cakes in airtight containers. The cakes will harden, especially if exposed to air. Leftovers should be wrapped with plastic film and placed in an airtight container. Store at room temperature for 1 day. Otherwise, keep in the fridge.
  •  

Nutrition

Calories: 320kcalCarbohydrates: 62gProtein: 3gFat: 7gSaturated Fat: 3gPolyunsaturated Fat: 2gMonounsaturated Fat: 1gTrans Fat: 0.03gSodium: 13mgPotassium: 238mgFiber: 2gSugar: 26gVitamin A: 0.3IUVitamin C: 1mgCalcium: 19mgIron: 1mg
Keyword Chinese New Year’s Cake, Leen Goh, Nian Gao
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