Chinese New Year Cake “Nian Gao” is a very traditional steamed rice cake dessert with special meaning in the Chinese culture. This dessert also happens to be free of the top 9 food allergens and very allergy friendly.
This post was updated on 11/21/2023 with minor updates.
Disclaimer: Please check that all ingredients are suitable for your allergies and be sure to ask your medical care team regarding any allergy related questions (I do not share medical advice). As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
Chinese New Year Traditions
Right after January 1st of each year, my parents spent almost every weekend preparing for Chinese New Year, now also referred to as Lunar New Year to include other Asian cultures that celebrate. My parents bought extra food, cleaned the house, and withdrew newly minted crisp dollar bills from the bank to fill red envelopes with “lucky money.” My cumulative memories of Chinese New Year include vases of beautiful pink quince blossoms on otherwise bare branches, tangerines with little red envelopes next to them, lots of candy and sweetened dried fruits, festive fire crackers and lively dragon dances.
One of the best parts of Chinese New Year for a child is to greet our elders with “Gung Hay Fat Choy” which means “May You Be Happy and Prosperous” in Cantonese and then receive red envelopes containing “lucky money.” I definitely felt lucky to grow up with a huge extended family with many family friends and definitely rich with tradition and fond memories.
Why Do We Eat Nian Gao During the Lunar New Year?
My mom always made a New Year cake, also known as nian gao. Even though the words nian gao mean “year cake,” the words sound like “year higher” and symbolize prosperity or promotion or children growing taller.
Since I first started blogging, I have shared other recipes that are appropriate for Lunar New Year celebrations.
- Chinese New Year Cake “Nian Gao” Recipe – a steamed glutinous rice cake dessert
- Rice Ovalettes with Pork and Vegetables Stir Fry Recipe (Chao Nian Gao) – a savory stir fry
- Chinese Style Steamed Fish & Chinese New Year – fresh steamed whole fish
- Delicious Red Bean Black Glutinous Rice Soup Recipe – this dessert soup is considered lucky
- Pan-Fried Pork and Shrimp Dumplings (Potstickers) – great appetizer
- Chinese Potstickers with Napa Cabbage Carrot Soup & Crazy Cuizine Review – use frozen potstickers to make soup
- Make Chicken Potstickers From Scratch Recipe – chicken potstickers
- Chinese Potstickers Recipe: Pork & Napa Cabbage – shrimp free potstickers
- Dim Sum: Turnip Cake – a savory steamed rice cake that is pan fried until crispy
- “Bok Cheet Gai” Slow Cooker Chinese White Cut Chicken – poach chicken in a slow cooker
- Easy & Low-Fat Chinese Salt and Pepper Garlic Shrimp Recipe – shrimp is an auspicious ingredient
- Happiness is a Shrimp Stir Fry with Spring Vegetables Recipe – a shrimp stir-fry
- Asian Chicken Lettuce Wraps are Easy to Make, Fun to Eat – lettuce represents abundance
- Stir Fried Iceberg Lettuce with Oyster Sauce – a simple stir-fry side dish
- Wagyu Sausage Lettuce Wrap – lettuce is symbolizes prosperity
- Make Beautiful Lettuce Cups for Lettuce Wraps
- Nut Free Chinese New Year Vegetable Stew “Jai” Recipe – a Cantonese vegetable stew with many auspicious ingredients
How to Make Nian Gao
My mom stirred sweet rice flour into a pot of boiling hot brown sugar simple syrup, plopped the gooey mass into a stainless steel bowl lined with bamboo leaves, and steamed it for hours until the windows fogged up with condensation.
She made it a day or two before Chinese New Year but we couldn’t eat it until then, which was just as well because the nian gao was way too sticky to cut, serve, touch or eat on the first day. Each day the cake became a little less sticky and a little more firm, until it was too dry and too hard, at which point my mom would either steam the cake again, pan fry slices in oil, or dip slices in egg and pan fry them like french toast.
Because you will need to steam this dessert for 90 minutes, it’s important to check that your pot is wide enough to hold the cake pan with some clearance for you to lower the pan into the pot without touching the sides of your pot. And because the steam time is so long, you also need to have enough water to steam for 90 minutes, a tall steaming rack, and enough clearance to put a lid on the pot. See my post about Steamy Cooking Tips: How to Steam Chinese Recipes.
Allergy Friendly Steamed Rice Cake
I am excited to share this particular recipe because nian gao is vegan, gluten-free, and free of the top 9 allergens, whoo-hoo!
And I was thrilled to find out that my mom’s favorite sweet rice flour by Koda Farms
A traditional recipe uses Chinese brown sugar bricks called pian tang but brown sugar is an acceptable substitute that is readily available. My family loves this recipe so you can count on it to be delicious.
Allergy aware warning:
Chinese new year cakes might have peanut oil, almond extract, red bean paste, stewed pork belly, lotus seeds, egg yolk, milk, coconut, sesame, etc.. It’s best not to assume that all nian gao is vegan or allergen free and ask before consuming store-bought or other homemade versions.
Enjoy the Chinese New Year cake recipe and “Gung Hay Fat Choy!” May you and your loved ones be blessed with good health, peace, and overflowing joy.
This recipe as written is vegan, gluten free, and free of the top 8 allergens.
Chinese New Year Cake “Nian Gao” Recipe
Chinese New Year Cake "Nian Gao" is a very traditional steamed rice cake dessert with special meaning in the Chinese culture. This dessert also happens to be free of the top 9 food allergens and very allergy friendly.
- 1 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
- 1 1/2 cup water divided
- 1 box 1 pound Koda Farms sweet rice flour
- 2 tablespoons canola oil or other mild flavored vegetable oil plus 1/2 teaspoon to oil a pie plate
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Oil a pie plate or round cake pan with 1/2 teaspoon of oil.
Be sure to check that your dish will fit inside the pot with the lid on. Add 1 1/2 inch of water to a large pot with a tight fitting lid and a steamer rack and bring water to boil.
Measure 3/4 cup water in a glass measuring cup, add brown sugar, and microwave for 1 minute until the sugar is dissolved.
Pour sweet rice flour into a large bowl, add the brown sugar water, 3/4 cup of water, oil and vanilla extract.
Stir to combine until the rice mixture is smooth and free of lumps.
Transfer the rice mixture into the prepared pie plate and smooth out the top.
Set the cake inside the pot and steam for 1 1/2 hours.
Check the water level of the pot periodically (avoid letting the condensation from the lid drip on the cake when lifting the lid) and replenish with hot water as necessary.
Allow the cake to cool completely, cover with plastic wrap, and the cake will be ready to serve the next day.
For this recipe, it’s important to be sure that your pot will be wide enough and tall enough to fit your cake pan or pie dish and have enough water in it to steam for 1 1/2 hours. Refer to my post about steaming tips.
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