A Sticky Situation

Chinese New Year is not an unfamiliar concept for many students at UBC. Whether you yourself are of Chinese descent, or you have friends that are, it is inevitable that you will be faced with the many social media posts of a Chinese New Year’s feast come January 28th. While the dishes that decorate a CNY dinner table vary from region to region, my personal favorite, nian gao (literally sticky rice cake) is bound to appear as the iconic Chinese New Year dessert. Nian gao is a play on the words “year cake” to mean “higher year,” which is to symbolize that in the coming year, everything will grow- wealth and prosperity will ascend in the family, children will grow taller, breadwinners of the family will get promoted.

Nian gao is an extremely versatile dish. My mom likes to add red bean and red dates, but I know that flavors can range from mung bean to coconut to caramel. Below, I’ve attached a simple recipe (http://www.nutfreewok.com/chinese-new-year-nian-gao-recipe/) for the classic brown sugar nian gao, and refined it so it is accessible for the normal household kitchen. Keep in mind that if you are to make it yourself, prepare it two days before the day you would like to eat it, as the nian gao is likely to be too sticky to serve or eat on the first day and needs time to firm.


  • 1.5 cup brown sugar
  • 1.5 cup water
  • 1 lb. sweet rice flour
  • 2 tablespoons peanut oil
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract



  1. Use peanut oil or non-stick cooking spray to oil a round cake pan.
  2. Put a steamer rack into a large pot with a fit lid. Add 1.5 inches of water to the pot.
  3. In a bowl, add ¾ cup of water and add brown sugar. Stir over low heat or microwave on high for 50 seconds until the sugar is dissolved.
  4. In another large bowl, combine the sweet rice flour and brown sugar water. Add another ¾ cup of water, oil, and vanilla extract. Stir until the mixture is smooth. You may choose to sift this until it is free of lumps.
  5. Transfer the mixture onto the oiled pie plate, using a spatula to smooth out the top.
  6. Set the cake inside the pot and steam for 90 minutes.
  7. Every once in awhile, check the water level of the pot, replenish with hot water if necessary.
  8. Allow the cake to cool completely, cover with plastic wrap and wait patiently for it to firm! It will ready to serve the next day.

After your nian gao is firm, able to be cut and ready for consumption, you may choose to serve it in many different ways based on your preference of texture. While I get lazy and eat it as hard bricks of rice flour, many prefer to re-steam it so that it is sticky and soft. You can also choose to cut into smaller squares and pan-fry them so that they are crusty and chewy on the outside and warm and gooey on the inside. I suggest to share this dessert with family and friends in exchange for a red pocket!

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