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Chinese New Year Cake - Nin Gou/Nian Gao (Traditional)

Updated: Feb 7, 2021

Nin Gou (in Cantonese or Niangau in Mandarin) is a sweet, sticky cake made during Chinese New Year. Nin Gou means higher year. It is made of glutinous rice flour, water and brown sugar. The sticky sweet glutinous rice flour was believed to be an offering to the Kitchen god with the goal of sticking his mouth shut so that he could not talk badly of the human family in front of the Jade Emperor. Sounds like a good plan! Gung Hay Fat Choy (in Cantonese) xīn nián kuài lè (in Mandarin).

There are many different recipes for nin gou. I tried one with coconut milk which was also very delicious. This is the "traditional" recipe which uses only 3 main ingredients, water, Chinese brown sugar and glutinous rice flour. This cake can be steamed in a steamer in a pressure cooker if short on time. I will give you the time and method for steaming it the traditional way as well as cooking it in a pressure cooker.

Many say this simple traditional recipe is kind of plain but I still think it is really delicious. Also, it doesn't yield a super smooth top but who cares what it looks like. You won't see the top when it pan fried. SO good pan fried! Check out my other less traditional recipes for delicious variations on this New Year Cake. Wishing you happiness, good fortune and prosperity in the new year!

Nin Gou/Nian Gao

Ingredients (serves 8)

2 cups water, plus more for steaming

1 package Chinese slab brown sugar (5 pieces) or 1 1/2 cups brown sugar

1 pound sweet rice flour (about 3 cups)

2 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more for coating the pan

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 dried Chinese red date (jujube), cut in half and pitted, for garnish (optional)

1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds, for garnish


Place water and sugar in a medium saucepan over medium high heat. Stir until the sugar is completely dissolved (5-10 minutes). Do not let the water boil. Remove from heat to cool until just warm to touch.

Prepare steamer and cake pan. Set up bamboo steamer in a pot or wok at least 1 inch above water. If you don't have a bamboo steamer use a rack or coil up some aluminum foil in a large pot to elevate your cake pan above the water. Put enough water in pot so it is 1 1/2-2" high. Bring water up to a boil then turn down to a medium low simmer. Spray an 8 or 9" cake pan with cooking spray or line with parchment paper or aluminum foil making sure to cover sides. If you are making a cake to give use a disposable aluminum cake pan. In the picture below I used four 4" stainless steel cake pans.

Place rice flour in a large mixing bowl. Slowly add the sugar water and mix with a silicone spatula until smooth. It may be lumpy. Press lumps against side to break them up or pass entire mixture through a sieve to get a smooth batter. Add oil and mix until incorporated. Pour into prepared cake pan. Place jujube in the middle if using.

Place pan in steamer. Cover and set timer for 1 1/2 hours. Check every 30 minutes to make sure there is enough water in the pot. If you need to replenish the water add warm water and cover pot. Cake is done when it is firm.

While cake is steaming, lightly toast sesame seeds in a small skillet. Set aside to cool. When cake is done, sprinkle on sesame seeds. Cool to room temperature before slicing and serving. Or slice into 1/2" slices and pan fry in a little oil. Another option is dipping the slices in egg before pan frying.

If using a pressure cooker, make sure your pan fits inside your pressure cooker. Cover pan tightly with aluminum foil to prevent water from dripping onto the cake. Make a sling out of aluminum foil so you can place and remove cake easily. Pour at least 2 cups of water into pressure cooker and elevate pan with a steamer rack or aluminum foil coil. Cover and set to pressure cook for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, allow it to release naturally then check for doneness. A chopstick inserted in the middle should come out clean. You can cover the hole with a jujube.

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