We dive into the history of two Lunar New Year puddings, the savoury turnip cake and the sweet sticky rice cake nian gao, and the special meaning they uphold
Food is the centrepiece of every family’s home during Chinese New Year. With an endless stream of steamed fish, poon choi, golden spring rolls and jiaozi rolling through the kitchen door, families gather around the dinner table to celebrate this cherished time together.
Homophones are deeply rooted in Chinese culture, and most dishes have a special significance that is tied to good luck, good fortune and good health, including the treasured Lunar New Year cakes—the turnip cake and nian gao, a sweet sticky rice cake. For chef Li Chi-Wai of Rosewood Hong Kong’s The Legacy House, these Lunar New Year specials are about tradition, a time to celebrate with family and a symbolic meaning to wish everyone increasing prosperity every year.
Turnip cake (lo bak go) can be found all year round at dim sum restaurants, but it most definitely will be present at the dinner table during Chinese New Year. The turnip cake is quite an enigma itself, as there are many theories floating around as to where it actually comes from. Adding to the mystery is the fact that it isn’t actually made from turnip, but rather from white radish, more precisely daikon radish. Radish in Cantonese, choi tau—which is derived from the Taiwanese cai tou—means good fortune, and is typically served in the winter. Thus, a Chinese New Year banquet wouldn’t be complete without this traditional savoury cake.
Recipes vary but turnip can be made with a combination of dried shrimp, earthy mushrooms, and Chinese fermented sausage though some prefer to use fatty pork or dried scallops. It can be steamed and pan-fried and gives off an incredible umami flavour.
It is no surprise that the nian gao is savoured for other reasons than its delicious glutinous texture and caramel toffee-like sweetness. Nian gao (年糕) translates to “year cake” and sounds much like “year high”. It invites growth in all aspects of life, whether it be professional or personal. This could mean a promotion, increase in income, longevity or in children’s case—growing up faster.
Legend says that the nian gao was created as an offering to the Kitchen God who would make his yearly report on each family’s activities to the Jade Emperor. One family, not wanting him to report on what went on within their four walls, served the Kitchen God nian gao to stick his mouth shut and prevent him from bad-mouthing the household.
Another legend takes us back to around 2,500 years ago, when a siege had befallen the Wu Kingdom and trapped its army and citizens inside the city walls, with no access to food. However, one citizen recalled that prior to his death, Wu general Zixu had claimed that the foundation of the city walls was made out of glutinous rice bricks and that if the people were ever in trouble, to just dig three feet under. Nian gao was born and is now served around Chinese New Year to commemorate general Zixu.
Nian gao recipes vary from region to region as well. While the Shanghainese-style nian gao is usually savoury, served stir-fried with either pork, chicken, scallion or cabbage, the Beijing-style nian gao is sweet and made with red dates. The Cantonese-style sticks to brown sugar, giving off a beautiful red colour, another symbol of good luck.
“It’s nothing fancy,” continues Li, who has prepared turnip cake and nian gao gift boxes for the new year. “The secret for my recipe is that I ensure the nian gao cools down completely to maintain the soft texture, so that when it gets slightly hard when you reheat it will still be soft and not super chewy.”