Nian gao or ‘sticky cake’ is often eaten at New Year for good luck. When cooked, the cake has a similar consistency to Japanese mochi balls, and then after pan-frying in egg it transforms into the most delicious eggy ‘bread’ ever tasted.

This nian gao steamed cake recipe with glutinous rice and brown sugar is the traditional cake eaten around the Far East – in China, Vietnam, Taiwan… It is often topped with a single red date, or a piece of paper illustrated with red and gold writing.

The sugar most often used is called ‘Chinese Brown Sugar in Pieces’. It comes in small bars, and looks like a deep rich fudge. A very strong contender with Kendal Mint Cake for taking on a hike.

Chinese brown sugar in pieces

The nian gao are cooked in two stages. Firstly a simple mixture of just four ingredients: Chinese brown sugar, coconut milk, glutinous rice flour and water; which is steamed and left to cool. Most people would buy cakes in this form, rather than make them themselves. The second stage is to cut into slices, and pan fry in a little egg to serve.

Cake moulds or ramekins are usually lined with banana leaves. As these are in short supply in Europe, definitely don’t be tempted to line with greaseproof paper. Wikipedia suggests that the cake was made as an offering for the Kitchen God – “with the aim that his mouth will be stuck with the sticky cake, so that he can’t badmouth the human’s family to the God of all Gods”. This is true, it’s very sticky stuff! You’ll be fighting a losing battle with mouthfuls of paper. Instead they turn out very neatly from a greased ramekin alone.

Do not line ramekins with greaseproof paper – the cake is too sticky! 

Recipe: Chinese New Year Cake

Makes 3 x 10cm diameter cakes. Timings: 15 minutes to prepare, and 30 minutes cooking time

For the cakes
225g Chinese brown sugar in pieces (half a packet)
200ml water
200ml coconut milk (half a can)
225g glutinous rice flour (half a bag)
Optional gold leaf, to garnish

To serve
3 medium eggs
Pinch of salt
Butter or oil for frying (I like half/half)

To make the cakes
1. Break the Chinese brown sugar into small pieces, and place in a pan with the water. Heat, stirring every minute or two until dissolved, and simmer for 5-10 minutes.
2. Remove the pan from the heat, and whisk in the coconut milk.
3. Measure out the glutinous rice flour into a large mixing bowl, and pour over the coconut milk and sugar mixture. Whisk well, until there are no lumps. The texture should be similar to a runny pancake batter.
4. With a little cooking oil, grease 3 or 5 small ramekins, remembering 4 is an unlucky number! The number you want to use will depend a little on the size of your saucepan. Pour in the batter, dividing equally between dishes.
5. Sit the ramekins in a large saucepan with a lid – or two pans if they won’t all fit in one, and add water until it comes to half way up the sides of the dishes. Cover with lid, and sit over a low heat for 30-60 minutes. The batter will be cooked after 30 minutes, but you’ll notice a subtle deepening of colour the longer the cakes are left to cook.
6. Remove from pan and leave to cool. Refrigerate. After this stage, they will keep well wrapped in the fridge.
7. Optional: If you’re giving the cakes as presents, run a usual eating knife around the side of the cake, and lever it out. Place upside down on a circle of greaseproof paper, tie with string, and top with a little gold leaf.

To serve
1. Whisk the egg in a wide shallow bowl, and add a pinch of salt. Heat butter or oil in a frying pan.
2. Turn the cakes out of the ramekins (see step 7 above), and cut into 0.5cm slices. Coat in the egg, and fry until lightly brown on each side. Devour with enthusiasm.