• New year sticky cake or nian gao. (Flickr / Cynniebuns)Source: Flickr / Cynniebuns
Nian gao is a popular dessert during Lunar New Year. According to Michelle Tchea, it's even better than chocolate cake.
Michelle Tchea

8 Feb 2021 - 9:34 AM  UPDATED 10 Feb 2021 - 9:28 AM

For many Aussies, celebrating New Year in early February can seem somewhat bizarre and outlandish. The year starts on the first of January, doesn’t it?

Well, yes, but according to the lunar calendar, Chinese New Year is dictated by the moon and so the exact date changes every year – it usually falls between late January and late February. So Chinese families are fortunate to have two New Year holidays. The occasion is also known as Lunar New Year and is celebrated by people in Korea, Vietnam, Singapore and other countries outside China.

This year, New Year falls on 12 February, so February 11 (Lunar New Year's Eve) is a huge day of feasting as part of the traditional reunion dinner: Chinese family tables are filled with dishes meant to bring luck, prosperity and good fortune.

As an Australian-born Chinese person, I never had to hide my cultural background at school. Luckily, I had friends from Italy, Greece and Poland to share family food traditions with – thanks to the thriving multicultural diversity in Australia. Each year when Lunar New Year came around again, I would convince my parents that it was only fitting for me to stay at home and celebrate the festivities. My argument was that my Jewish friends did so for Rosh Hashanah, as did my Greek friends for their Easter. 

I’m sure my mum saw holes in my argument, but she allowed it if it meant an extra pair of hands to tidy the house – an activity necessary to prepare the house for a ‘clean’ and fresh start to the New Year. 

Honouring our ancestors with a trip to the temple is also a mandatory custom, while eating auspicious foods is a favourite activity that both kids and adults look forward to. 

Chinese people are superstitious during New Year celebrations. There are many foods we consider necessary and not just because they're traditional – they're also said to bring us luck for the year ahead. Dumplings signify good fortune, a whole fish means a year of great feasting and, of course, sticky desserts represent a year of unity and togetherness.

With COVID-19 travel restrictions in place, I find myself away from home and thinking of the wonderful food treasures my mum and her two sisters will be preparing this year. Families might have different variations on preparing their lucky fish or wealth-bringing dumplings, but nian gao, the sticky and glutinous dessert, will undoubtedly be in its original form: glistening on the table with a giant Chinese character symbolising ‘fortune’ on it.

For non-Chinese Aussies, this dessert might seem unappealing when compared to indulgent treats like a pavlova or chocolate-flavoured devil's food cake.

But give me the choice of chocolate cake or nian gao – I choose nian gao.

Made simply with sugar, which is caramelised and mixed with glutinous rice flour and water, the dessert is steamed until bouncy and it should be cooked through when prodded with a skewer or chopstick.

But give me the choice of chocolate cake or nian gao – I choose nian gao.

Traditionalists will wrap the nian gao in bamboo leaves, another ingredient symbolising a great year ahead (bamboo shoots grow upwards and often into the heavens, if you're wondering why) and imparts a slightly fragrant aroma into the sticky dessert. My dad’s side makes a nian gao found widely in Southeast Asia, which uses coconut with many layers to represent layers of good fortune – it's enjoyable, but not something I crave when away from home.

Mum's version made with red bean.

As a child, I wondered what my friends would think of this intensely sticky and bouncy dessert. I never shared it with them because those tiny White Rabbit lollies you get in Chinese grocers were so much more appealing. But in a modern age of mochi madness and sushi joints as common as fish and chip shops, I think some non-Chinese Aussies would love the texture while others might sneer at a dessert which can be thrown on the ground like a ball.

But please, how could you not love this easy dessert made up of just three ingredients? I find myself whipping it up in a flash and eating it even when Chinese New Year is not on its way. My advice for novices: eat it fresh, with a spoonful of extra honey, or let it mature for a few days and slice it into portable pieces when unexpected friends drop by. My mum, not a calorie counter, has her favourite way of serving it – lightly battered in an almost thinned-down pancake mix and deep-fried to golden perfection. 

Oh yes, I love nian gao. And with 2021 so unpredictable, I’m going to eat double to ensure family reunions and togetherness are on the cards this year.

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Sticky cake - nian gao - is hugely popular at Lunar New Year, symbolising the wish to "stick together" with your family, and encouraging prosperity.