Taste the World - China - Nian Gao

*Official name: People's Republic of China *Capital: Beijing *Official Languages: Standard Chinese, Mongolian, Tibetan, Uyghur, Zhuang *Government: Socialist one-party state *Area: 3,705,407 sq mi *Population: (2015 estimate) 1,376,049,000 *Currency: Renminbi (yuan) (CNY) *Time Zone: China Standard Time *Drives on the: right *International code: CN (data from Wikipedia)

For China, I made Nian Gao, or Chinese New Year Cake. This cake is not baked, but steamed.  This recipe is an example of why I started this project. It is so different, in flavor and preparation, from what I am accustomed to, in the most delightful way. It's made me want to explore more steamed Asian dishes.  


Nian Gao (Chinese New Year Cake)

Special equipment: Bamboo steamer and wok, with a cake pan that will fit inside your steamer. If you don’t have a large bamboo steamer, create your own steamer. Take two 24-inch-long pieces of aluminum foil and loosely roll and crumple each one widthwise into a 1-inch-thick piece. Form each piece into an “S” shape and place both in a large frying pan or a large straight-sided pan with a tightfitting lid. Add an inch of water and bring it to a simmer. Proceed with the recipe, placing the cake pan on top of the foil coils rather than in a bamboo steamer. My cake pans were too large for my steamer, so I made two mini cakes with some small bread tins as pictured here: 



  • 2 cups water, plus more for steaming
  • 1 (1-pound) package Chinese brown sugar
  • 1 pound sweet rice flour (about 3 cups)
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more for coating the pan
  • 2 teaspoons almond extract
  • 10 dried seedless Chinese red dates, also known as jujubes, for garnish (optional)
  • 1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds, for garnish

*I got my Chinese Brown Sugar and Sweet Rice Flour at a great local Asian market. You need sweet rice flour, and not regular rice flour.


1. Place the water and brown sugar in a medium saucepan. Set over medium heat and stir occasionally until the sugar has completely dissolved. (Do not let it boil.) Remove from heat and let cool until warm to the touch.

2. Meanwhile, fill a 14-inch wok with about 1 1/2 inches of water and place a 12-inch bamboo steamer inside. (The water should not touch the bottom of the steamer.) If you don’t have a wok and a bamboo steamer, use a large frying pan and foil as described above in “Special equipment.” Bring the water to a simmer over medium heat. Coat an 8-9 inch round cake pan (or other pan that will fit in your steamer) with vegetable oil; set aside.

3. Place the rice flour in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. With the mixer on low speed, slowly pour in the sugar-water mixture, beating until smooth, about 2 minutes. If needed, stop to scrape down the sides of the mixer with a rubber spatula.

4. Add the oil and continue beating on low speed until the batter is smooth and the oil is incorporated, about 5 minutes. Add the almond extract and beat until just incorporated. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan.


5. Carefully place the pan in the bamboo steamer or on top of the foil coils. Cover the bamboo steamer with its lid or cover the wok or frying pan with a tightfitting lid or a sheet of aluminum foil. (Do not cover the cake pan directly with a lid or foil.) Steam until the cake is very firm to the touch, about 2-3 hours, checking every hour and replenishing the wok or pan with hot tap water as needed. While the cake is still warm, garnish with the dates (if using) and sesame seeds. Let cool on a rack to room temperature. Run a knife around the outside of the cake, then slip a thin spatula under the cake to lift it out. Serve it sesame seed side up.