Hong Kong is gearing up for Chinese New Year and special holiday food is showing up everywhere from supermarket shelves to wet market stalls. There’s one thing you absolutely can’t miss: nin4 gou1 (年糕), the sweet, chewy glutinous rice cake that is essential to the Cantonese celebration of the lunar new year. Literally meaning New Year Cake, this indulgent treat fools you into thinking it is much more than a simple mix of water, rice flour and lots of sugar.
Different regions of China have distinct variations of the cake. Some are savoury, like the famous Shanghainese version, which is served in rich stir fries (known in Mandarin as chǎo nián gāo 炒年糕). In Hong Kong, you will mostly see steamed caramel-coloured cakes topped with red dates. With red being the colour of luck and prosperity in China, dried dates not only come in the right shade of crimson, their name — zou2 (枣) — sounds just like zou2 (早), meaning “early” and thus giving you, the eater of red dates, a significant head start on life.
The cakes themselves are often made with copious amounts of brown sugar, which in Cantonese is called hung4 tong2 (红糖), literally “red sugar,” adding another layer of luck. Like almost all Chinese festival foods, the name of the cake has a double meaning. Nin4 gou1 (年糕) sounds exactly like nin4 gou1 (年高), meaning “year high” and interpreted as further prosperity and promotions in the new year.
The cakes are often sold in a transparent box with the character for prosperity (fuk1 福) on display. If you want a truly authentic version, it is best to track down the old ladies who still make the cake themselves and avoid the mass produced vacuum-sealed ones you can pick up from any bargain box. If you are looking for special gifting versions, the cakes do come in some creative shapes. Some are in the form of a carp, since fish (jyu4 魚) sounds like nin4 nin4 jau5 jyu4 (年年有餘), meaning having a surplus every year. Those hoping for extra cash can also find cakes in the form of ingots or the God of Wealth.
Those in it for the flavour will skip the gimmicks and go for the classic. Local tradition is to make zin1 nin4 gou1 (煎年糕), slicing the cake, then dipping the slices in some beaten eggs and frying till crispy golden on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside.
According to folk knowledge, New Year Cake has been around for at least a thousand years, showing up in Beijing customs as early as the Liao Dynasty (907-1125) and becoming a well-known snack by the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties. Some even say that fossilised specimens discovered in Zhejiang in the 1970s are actually 7,000 year-old pieces of nin4 gou1 .
The myths and legends surrounding nin4 gou1 are far more colourful. The first one tells a story of war and chaos during the Spring-Autumn Period of ancient China (722-481 BC). The Wu Kingdom at the time built a strong wall in its capital of Suzhou and rejoiced at their new protection, but prime minister Wu Zixu had the foresight to fortify the base of the wall with bricks of glutinous rice flour, just in case their newfound peace was fragile. Years later, after he passed away, the city was besieged by rebel forces and the soldiers remembered what Wu had done and dug up the bricks. This original version of the nin4 gou1 saved many people from starvation. After that it became a yearly tradition to make the cakes in honour of Wu Zixu.
Another account is more mystical, tied to an ancient Chinese monster, Nian. The monster lived in the mountains and would come down to hunt whenever it was hungry. By the end of winter, its food option was limited to humans since most animals were in hibernation. During the long winter months, it terrified villagers, until one day a clever man named Gao made some rice cakes and placed them in front of every house to feed Nian. Nian was satisfied, so the villagers began making these rice cakes every winter. Since Gao was the one who invented them, they called them Nian Gao, which is the Mandarin name for nin4 gou1.
Another story: one week before the Lunar New Year, the Kitchen God (zou3 gwan1 灶君) delivers a report to the heavens on the family’s behaviour throughout the year. Much like Father Christmas, Saint Nicolas or Santa Claus, your fate depends on whether you have been naughty or nice. To make sure the Kitchen God gives you full marks, the custom is to offer him generous amount of nin4 gou1 . This ensures a sweet deal is made – and if all else fails, at least he will stuff his mouth so full with cake that he cannot deliver any bad news.
Just to be sure, when the end of the month rolls around, offer some nin4 gou1 to the Kitchen God, then gobble it up yourself. With something so tasty, what do you have to lose?
Where to buy nin4 gou1
The hawker at the corner of Graham Street and Peel Street in Central sells New Year Cakes, along with other tempting, nostalgic snacks such as white sugar cake and lotus seed paste buns.
Most of Hong Kong’s hotels make their own versions of the New Year Cake. For an extra special treat, the Peninsula this year is introducing an osmanthus-flavoured cake. Made from freshly ground glutinous rice flour and priced at HK$168, it is a good option for those looking for something unique.
The Peninsula Boutique, The Peninsula Hong Kong, Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui.
+852 2696 6969
Make your own!
For a home-made version why not try this recipe from The Woks of Life.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.