Traditional foods of Chinese New Year

Many traditions of the Chinese New Year season, or Spring Festival, revolve around cooking and eating particular foods. Elaborate dinners are prepared with the following symbolic foods:

nian gao: sticky rice pudding cake

Pork brings wealth.
Sweet-and-sour fish  and chicken (both whole) signify surplus.
Fried rice symbolizes harmony and plenty.
Noodles represent longevity: they should not be cut.
Chinese dumplings, jiao zi, promise wealth.
Jai (gingko nut, black moss, dried bean curd, bamboo shoots, vermicelli & scallion) represents good fortune.
Yuan Xiao and Tang Yuan, balls of glutinous rice sometimes rolled around a filling of sesame, peanuts, vegetable, or meat, symbolize wholeness and unity.
Sticky rice pudding cake, nian gao, offers prosperity.

The following legend and recipe for Sticky Cake (or Chinese New Year Cake) were adapted from The FOOD Museum Online:

According to legend, one week before the Spring Festival begins, the Kitchen God returns to heaven to report on a family’s behavior during the previous year. A negative report by the Kitchen God means a family will suffer from bad luck during the year to come. In order to ensure a favorable report from the Kitchen God, the custom evolved of feeding him Sticky Cake.

Sticky Cake is steamed (as are most Chinese cakes) and made with glutinous rice flour and dried fruit. The version below uses sugar, but you’ll also find recipes using peen tong, a traditional Chinese brown candy.”

1 tablespoon flour
2 eggs, with whites and yolks separated
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/4 cups glutinous rice flour
1/3 cup milk
1 cup Chinese dried fruits, pitted if necessary and diced*
1 piece crystallized ginger, diced (optional)
1/2 cup chopped walnuts


Grease a loaf pan that is approximately 4 x 8 inches and set aside.
Beat the egg whites until stiff. Cream together the butter and the sugar. Add the egg yolks and mix thoroughly. Add one-third (a little less than 1/2 cup) of the glutinous rice flour and mix. Add about half of the milk. Continue adding the rice flour and the milk alternately until the entire amount is mixed in. Stir in whichever fruits you are using and then add the beaten egg whites, folding them into the cake batter.Pour the cake batter into the loaf pan and steam, covered, for about one hour. Allow to cool and cut into thin slices.

*The author suggests preserved seedless plums, preserved pears, or dates.

(This recipe is adapted from Chinese Cooking Secrets, by Karen Lee, courtesy of The FOOD museum online.)

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