Lunar New Year is celebrated throughout Asia, from China to Japan to the Philippines. While traditions are shared as much as they are diverse, one thing is for sure – sweet treats are a must to welcome in the New Year. Here is the second of instalment of our three-part guide to Asian sweets.
By
Yasmin Newman

15 Jan 2014 - 4:20 PM  UPDATED 4 Sep 2019 - 1:52 PM

Tikoy, Philippines

What is it?

Tikoy, a type of sticky rice cake, is the go-to sweet for Chinese New Year in the Philippines. A descendant of nian gao, the large round treat arrived in the country centuries ago with Chinese immigrants likely from Fujian province, where a similar custom of dipping in eggs and pan-frying it for a crisp exterior and soft inside is still practised.

Its name may differ, but tikoy holds the same significance as nian gao does on the Chinese mainland. Literally “sticky cake”, nian gao is a homonym for “higher year” – dig in to move on up in the coming year. There are other legends surrounding this sweet snack, widely deemed the most important in Chinese New Year. One tells of its clever purpose as an offering to the Kitchen God, who reports on families’ bad behaviour during his return to Heaven over the New Year. Nian gao’s sticky texture is designed to keep his trap shut.

How to?

While classic tikoy is a simple mix of ground glutinous rice, lard, sugar and water, flavoured green pandan and purple ube (purple yam) varieties also abound. Tikoy is typically purchased from specialty makers in Chinatown and given as gifts over the Chinese New Year period, even among the non-Chinese-Filipino community.

Babao fan, China

What is it?

This quintessential Chinese New Year dessert, known as “eight treasure rice” or “eight precious pudding” in English, is as striking as its name suggests. Inside a mound of tender sticky rice is a centre of rich red bean paste. On top, adorning the pudding, are bright, jewel-like fruits. Traditionally, eight different dried or fresh fruits were used to represent precious stones. Each also had a special meaning; for example, lotus seeds (for fertility and children) and candied melon (for growth and health). Today, almost anything goes, from the more obscure (abroad) gingko nut and osmanthus (fragrant flower) to dried cherries, raisins and walnuts. While toppings have changed, the significance of the number eight lives on; in Chinese, the word “eight” also sounds like rich – much like the pudding it inspired.

How to?

Babao fan is typically made at home with the aid of a pudding mould and bamboo steamer, and served after the big family Chinese New Year meal, when a sauce of sugar syrup is poured over the warm centrepiece dessert. 

Mochi, Japan

What is it?

While Japanese New Year, known as Omisoka, is not technically Lunar New Year (it has been celebrated on the 1 January since 1873), it shares a number of traditions with its Asian neighbours and was previously aligned with the same lunar calendar. Mochi, a daily favourite in Japan, takes on special significance during this time, when consumption skyrockets.

Prepared in advance, the steamed glutinous rice cakes offer rice-loving Japanese their rice fix without the need to cook; on New Year’s no finger should be lifted. Mochi is also a homophone; variations on the word mean “wealth” and “strength”. While any type of mochi is good luck, a bowl of ozoni (mochi in sweet soup) is a particular New Year’s specialty, along with kagami mochi, an edible mochi decoration. Mochi-obsessed? Maybe just a little.

How to?

Making these chewy treats is labour intensive. Multiple hands are required to steam and pound the glutinous rice to a paste, then shape the sticky mass into round mochi. While some families still enjoy the tradition, many buy pre-made mochi from specialty makers and supermarkets, where popular spinoffs, such as frozen mochi with ice-cream centres, can also be found.

Make it.
Sweet potato mochi cakes with red bean filling

Lunar New Year is one of my favourite times of the year because everywhere I turn I see my favourite things: noodles, dumplings, rice cakes, red bean that and matcha this. 

Peanut mochi

Mochi, delightfully chewy, mellow little pillows of rice-based dough often filled with nut, seed or sweet bean mixtures, get their name from mochigome, a particular strain of glutinous rice. Traditionally, the cooked rice is pounded to make the dough but glutinous rice flour (easily purchased from Asian grocers) mixed with water can be used instead. 

Cherry blossom pancakes (sakura mochi)

Cherry blossom season in Japan is one of the most spectacular and beautiful times of the year. This recipe for a traditional sweet made around the Tokyo area uses new-season cherry leaves to encapsulate the visual effect of the season in something edible. The balance of the salty pickled leaves and the sweet bean paste, and the chewiness of the pancake are the secrets to this sweet dish.

 

There are more Lunar New Year delicacies to be enjoyed in the next instalment.

Discover more sweet Asian eats with Donal's Asian Baking Adventures, double episodes 8.30pm Sundays on SBS Food (Channel 33) with streaming on SBS On Demand.

Illustration by Dawn Tan/The Jacky Winter Group