Celebrating Chinese New Year with nian gao, the auspicious rice cake

How a pun gave birth to a long standing (and delicious) New Year’s treat

You can have your cake and eat it too with this lucky dish. PHOTO: What to Cook Today

By: Nancy La, SFU Student

As January comes to a close and February unfolds, my family and I get ready to celebrate the beginning of the Lunar New Year. While others are buying chocolates for their loved ones in preparation for Valentine’s Day, I am busy helping my mother clean the house (the under-the-couch and into-the-kitchen-cabinets kind of cleaning) for our New Year’s dinner. Even more importantly, I assist in preparing the rice cake dishes. Rice cake, or nian gao, is one of the most important traditions of Chinese New Year celebrations, second only to the symbolic red envelopes of good luck. The relationship between nian gao and the Chinese New Year is a mysterious and intricate one; nobody knows how or why nian gao became an integral part of the holiday, but it must be done because that is the cultural norm. 

In an attempt to unravel this mysterious tradition, I turn to the most comprehensive source of Chinese cultural knowledge: my parents. The reason why Chinese people consume nian gao, according to my father, is because of a pun. The word “nian gao” is the homophone for “year high” in Mandarin and Cantonese, and it correlates to the verse “nian nian gao sheng,” meaning “higher every year.” Keep in mind, the verse does not dictate what should be higher than last year — you get a free-for-all good luck charm that applies to everything. Money? Check. Grades? Check. Health and prosperity? Triple check. I don’t know about you, but if consuming rice cakes will bring my GPA up higher than last year’s, count me in. 

Preparation for rice cake dishes depends on the route one would like to take. For those with a sweet tooth, there is the red sugar rice cake (hong tang nian gao). With its subtle hint of sweetness, it makes for a wonderful dessert on its own. However, my family likes to kick it up a notch by dipping slices of the sweet rice cake into a beaten egg and frying them up for an extra deluxe treat. The richness of the egg perfectly balances out the sweetness of the rice cake, and when combined with a good cup of Pu’erh tea? Perfection

Because rice cakes are just plain canvases ready to absorb any sort of flavour around them, taking the savoury route also yields spectacular results. My mom likes to toss some plain rice cakes with thin strips of pork and sliced cabbage in a wok, along with seasonings like soy sauce, sesame oil, and black vinegar. The end result is an umami-charged powerhouse with crunchy napa cabbage to balance out the chewy texture of the rice cakes. It’s a dish that’s perfectly filling on its own or as an accompaniment to some warm soup and dumplings. Either way, it’s a satisfying beginning to a prosperous New Year. 

With COVID-19 restrictions in place, the tradition of having a full family dinner will not be happening this year in my household. Yet, despite the distance between me and my family, there remains a powerful link that connects us all, no matter where we are: the sticky rice cake that unites our hearts and taste buds.