Nian gao, or Chinese new year cake, is one of those cakes that is a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to how much people like it. There are the people who love it and absolutely cannot imagine Chinese New Year without it; it’s considered arguably the “most important” cake to eat during Chinese New Year. “Nian” in “nian gao” means “year,” but it’s also a homonym for “sticky,” and “gao” in “nian gao” means “cake,” but is also a homonym for “high” or “tall.” So in other words, if you eat this cake during the new year, then you will have a highly prosperous and cohesive new year. And who would not want that?
There are also the people who think it’s bland, boring, and don’t understand what the hype is around it. It’s very lightly sweetened with Chinese brown sugar slabs, and in most cases, the excitement of eating it is really around the chewy, mochi-like texture. After all, it’s made with glutinous rice flour, so it should be chewy and a bit sticky. There are also those who have improvised the cake to make it more flavorful by adding additional flavorings like ginger, vanilla or almond extract, and even coconut milk and panda juice. The coconut milk and pandan versions look to be quite popular especially in Southeast Asia, no surprise.
I’m a bit in the middle camp: I appreciate it and enjoy it; it’s a very simple cake to make and steam, as the base has only three ingredients – glutinous rice flour, brown sugar, and water. But I definitely do not crave it. After learning about these other flavored versions, I am very tempted to try making these variations myself, especially the pandan flavored one after being spoiled with pandan flavored everything in Indonesia just a few weeks ago. You really need to appreciate subtle flavors and slight sweetness to enjoy this cake.
Chris took one bite of it, insisted it was not sweet enough, and said it was like eating calories for the sake of eating calories. Then he refused to eat more of it and went back to his Maltesers.
So… maybe I could have added more sugar to this version. But I will try again next time, as well as with a pandan coconut version. 🙂