Michelle Tseng still remembers her first sticky cake. “I was really little, and the smell was just overwhelming - sweet but not too sweet. It filled the whole house.” Tseng, who is now the marketing and events coordinator at Melbourne’s Chinese Museum, says the cake - slabs or shapes of sweetened glutinous rice - is still among her favourite foods. “There’s nothing quite like it!”
In China, nian gao (sticky cakes) are traditionally offered at Chinese New Year, as an offering to the “Kitchen God”, and also as a symbol for greater prosperity in the new year to come. “There’s so much symbolism in Chinese food,” says Tseng. “The stickiness of the cake, for instance, is supposed to signify sticking together with your family. Chinese New Year is like Christmas for us, so it’s all about spending time with family. The stickiness of the cakes represents us being together more throughout the coming year.”
Not only this, but while the words nian gao literally translate to sticky cake, nian sounds similar to the Chinese word for “year” and “gao” sounds like “high” or “tall”. So the cakes are also a symbol of good fortune and prosperity for the year to come. Other names for these lucky rice cakes include kuih bakul, teekuih and kue keranjang.
Some are made in special shapes - a fish shape, representing good luck, is particularly popular at the New Year.
While many cakes are sold simply as little hunks of glutinous rice (and there are both steamed and fried variations), many are filled, and the fillings change from region to region, says Tseng. Her own mother wrapped the cakes in a sweetened egg yolk, which Tseng still loves. In Shanghai, there’s a savoury version, while in Fujian taro is often added. In Cantonese cuisine, the cakes are sometimes sweetened with rosewater or red bean paste. Outside of China, the cakes are also enjoyed in different ways. Malaysians are keen on their sticky cakes sandwiched between slices of sweet potato or taro, then fried.
And true to Chinese culture, even these fillings have symbolism. The egg yolk wrapping, for example, is there to signify wealth because of its golden colour. And Tseng says that red bean paste, in particular, represents the feeling of missing someone, so cakes flavoured with red bean paste are often given to family members who live far away and are visiting for the New Year celebrations. The meaning comes from a Tang dynasty-era poem by Wang Wei called “One-Hearted.”
When those red berries [red beans] come in springtime,
Flushing on your southland branches,
Take home an armful, for my sake,
As a symbol of our love. [source]
As for how to enjoy the sweets this Chinese New Year, Tseng says there’s only one way. “Pop the whole thing in your mouth and feel it stick to the roof,” she says. If you’re wondering what this means, you’re right on the money - there’s even symoblism behind the eating of the cakes. “When the cake sticks to your mouth, it means you can’t say anything bad!”
lead image by Cynniebuns via Flickr.