Nian gao, often translated as “year cake” or “Chinese New Year’s cake”, is a traditional food made from glutinous rice flour and is widely consumed in Chinese cuisine. While it can be enjoyed throughout the year, it is especially popular during the Chinese New Year. The name “nian gao” is a homonym for “higher year” or “grow every year”, symbolizing prosperity and growth for the upcoming year.
Origins and Significance
Originally from China, nian gao has spread to various parts of Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, due to overseas Chinese influences. The cake is believed to be an offering to the Kitchen God, with the intention that the sticky cake will seal his mouth, preventing him from speaking ill of the human family to the Jade Emperor. Consuming nian gao during the Chinese New Year is considered auspicious, as it is associated with the hope for a more prosperous year.
Preparation and Consumption in Malaysia
In the Guangdong variety, which is likely the version most familiar to Malaysians given the significant Cantonese influence in the country, nian gao is sweetened, typically with brown sugar, giving it a distinct dark yellow hue. Once prepared, it can be eaten as is, but a popular method of consumption in Malaysia is to slice the nian gao and pan-fry it, often with egg. This results in a slightly crispy exterior while retaining a soft and sticky interior. During the Chinese New Year, it is common to serve fried nian gao alongside other festive dishes. Additionally, it is customary to gift nian gao to friends and relatives as a gesture of goodwill and wishes for prosperity.
Fried nian gao is more than just a delicious treat; it carries with it centuries of tradition, symbolism, and cultural significance. As the Chinese diaspora spread across Southeast Asia, so did the love for this sticky rice cake, making it an integral part of Chinese New Year celebrations in Malaysia and beyond.
Article curated by Suwaytha Gopal