Learn how to make this traditional Chinese nian gao recipe with steamer, slow cooker, or Instant Pot pressure cooker. This recipe is so easy and no fuss.
CHINESE NIAN GAO AND CHINESE NEW YEAR
Having some kue bakul or known as nian gao in Chinese around the house for lunar new year celebration is not unusual in our house and I know for many others too. Like I’ve mentioned before, lots of Chinese food carry auspicious meanings. The reason many people want to have nian gao for the lunar new year celebration because the word “Gao (糕) ” means cake, which has a similar pronunciation to Gao ((高), which means “tall” (a higher year). I think you can see what I’m trying to say here. Nian gao symbolizes a high year, an increase in prosperity 🙂 We simply call it “ti kue” in Hokkien, which means sweet cake.
WHAT’S THE STORY BEHIND NIAN GAO?
My mom told me one story behind the reason for having nian gao around during lunar new year. Most Chinese believe that the “Kitchen God” resides in every house. He will do “yearly report” on how each family is doing throughout the year. So, by offering the nian gao, the Kitchen God will have trouble saying too many things (not-so-good things we’ve done), because the mouth is full of pretty sticky rice cake 😉 I sure don’t mind a prosperous year and a good report from the Kitchen God. I thought that was a pretty entertaining story 🙂
INGREDIENTS TO MAKE NIAN GAO
Basic nian gao only needs 3 ingredients to make: glutinous rice flour (sticky rice/sweet rice flour), sugar, and water. This recipe is completely naturally gluten-free. The three are mixed together and then steamed until it’s cooked through.
PRESSURE COOKER NIAN GAO IS MY FAVORITE METHOD
Like I’ve mentioned above that you only need 3 ingredients to make nian gao. It’s pretty time-consuming to make it if you do it the traditional way by steaming. Over the years, I’ve tried to make them using a slow cooker and Instant pot pressure cooker. The two latter are pretty convenient as I don’t have to attend to the steamer and keep refilling water because I had to steam for 2.5-3 hours. I only need about 45 minutes of high-pressure cooking to make this nian gao. Pretty sweet eh? save lots of gas 🙂
SIZE OF ROUND PAN TO MAKE NIAN GAO
I recommend aluminum-based pan because they cook faster compares to when I use a round glass dish.
For 6-quart or larger pressure cooker or steamer, I recommend this aluminum round cake pan. It’s 7 inches in diameter and 3 inches in depth, which is perfect.
For slow cooker, you need something smaller to fit into the slow cooker. I recommend this 3×3 or 3×2 aluminum round cake pan. You may need 2-3 of these, depending on how big your slow cooker is.
HOW TO STORE AND REHEAT NIAN GAO ?
Glutinous rice gives you a very filling sensation and no matter how big of an eater you are, let’s face it, no one can eat 2 to 3 large nian gao in one day (not a good idea to do so either!). Here’s what to do:
1. They can be stored at room temperature for up to one week. If it’s really humid where you are, probably 3 days max. After that, they can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 6 months
3. When ready to serve them just reheat them with a steamer or microwave if you want to eat them plain
4. If you are going to cook them with eggs, follow this Pan-fried Nian Gao with Egg recipe.
But another reason why I wanted to make this nian gao is simply because I want my kids to know about this tradition. Yes, they are 5 and 2 years old! A bit young to understand much, but my 5 year old described it as “squishy, mushy, and delicious” ha..ha…!! I don’t think they are mushy, but hey…I’ll take the delicious!
My mom usually cut some red paper to put on top of the nian gao and usually on fruits too. The Chinese love red for important celebrations like Chinese New Year 🙂 You can put red dates/jujube in the middle of the cake too.
WHAT TO DO WITH LEFTOVER NIAN GAO
Fried Nian Gao, Taro, Sweet Potato Spring Rolls (Air-Fryer Version)
Fried Nian Gao Sweet Potato Balls
Fried Nian Gao Sweet Potato Sandwich
Super Easy Baked Nian Gao Puff Pastry (3 filling combo)
Pan-fried Nian Gao with Egg
If you don’t want to do this traditional steamed nian gao, you MUST try this Baked Chinese New Year Sweet Nian Gao. So much easier and well-loved by my hubby and kiddos too.
Chinese Baked Red Bean Nian Gao (Red Bean Mochi Cake)
*Recipe is written for 6-quart Instant Pot. Cooking time should remain the same for 8-quart size but will take longer to pressurize*
Easy Nian Gao Recipe (Tikoy/Fa Gao/Kue Bakul)
- 600 gr glutinous rice flour
- 600 ml water
- 400 gr dark brown sugar or use gula Jawa/Melaka or coconut sugar
- 50 gr white sugar
- 1 Tbsp cooking oil neutral-tasting
- 4-5 long sheets of banana leaves if frozen thawed first
- Zest of one orange
Size of pan you need:
- 7 x 3 inch round cake pan perfect for steamer and 6-quart instant pot
- 2 5 x 3 inch round cake pan to fit in slow cooker or steamer
- If using a 7-inch round pan, the cake will be about 1 1/2-2 inch in height. If using 5-inch round pan, you will need 2 pans and the cake will be about 2 1/2 or close to 3 inches in height. You can also use 6 inch round pan too
Prepare the banana leaves (if using):
- Blanch the banana leaves in hot boiling water for about 5 minutes to soften it. Then pat dry and set aside
- Cut the banana leaves into 7-inch width and about 7-8 inch length. Line the leaf horizontally and then vertically like a “+” (overlapping at the bottom of the dish) and then diagonally like an “X” to make sure I cover all the side and bottom of the dish. Repeat this pattern for 2 more times. For slow cooker, skip down to slow cooker to read the instruction
Prepare nian gao batter:
- Place both sugar and water in a saucepan and bring to a gentle simmer or until sugar is melted. Remove from the heat and let it cool down completely. Strain the mixture if using gula Jawa or gula Melaka as sometimes there are some impurities in the sugar
- Gradually pour the sugar mixture and oil into the flour and stir until smooth. If lumps persists, simply strain it with a sieve and then pour into the prepared pan lined with banana leaves. Add the orange zest if you plan to use and stir to combine. If you don't use banana leaves, lightly oil the sides and bottom of the pan for easier release later
- Prepare the steamer by bringing the water to a rolling boil. Give the nian gao batter a stir and pour nian gao batter into the prepared pan and cover with aluminum foil or wrap the lid of the steamer with a dry kitchen towel. Place inside the steamer and steam on high heat for 30 minutes and then lower the heat and steam for 2 1/2 – 3 hours or longer. You may need to refill the water in the steamer throughout the cooking process. Don't let it dry out
- The nian gao will still appear very soft at the end of cooking time and that’s very normal. You need to let the nian gao cool down completely. Wrap them up with plastic wrapper and they will be ready in 2 days. At day 3, the nian gao will be much more firm and can be sliced. After day 3, I recommend to wrap them up and keep them in the refrigerator or they can start to get moldy (because we don’t put preservatives). They can keep for months in the freezer however
Slow cooker method :
- For slow cooker, you need a smaller round pan or cans lined with banana leaves that can fit in your slow cooker. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Place the nian gao inside the slow cooker and wrap the lid with a dry clean clorth and then very carefully pour in the boiling water into the slow cooker up to the point where you fill up the batter. Cook on low for 10-12 hours. It will still appear somewhat soft, but that's normal. Remove from the slow cooker and let them cool down completely
Instant pot method:
- Pour 1 cup of water into the inner pot. Set the trivet. Place the nian gao on top of the trivet. Cover with aluminum foil. Close the lid. Pressure release valve to seal and press pressure cooker, high pressure. I recommend using aluminum or stainless steel pan as they conduct heat better. I don't recommend using a thick glass container. Set the timer to 60 minutes and then natural release. If you use 6 inch round pan, the cake will be taller and you need a bit longer time to cook. Set the timer to 75 minutes and then natural release
- The cake will still appear very soft and that's very normal. If you insert a toothpick into the middle of the cake, it will still be wet. Don't worry. It has to cool down completely and you will see that the cake will firm up and the top will dry. Let it cool down at room temperature for 6 hours or overnight
Cooling down and storing:
- Let it cool down completely and then wrap with aluminum foil. Let it sit at room temperature for at least 24 hours before unmoulding or attempting to cut. They will get slightly firmer. They can be kept at room temperature for up to 1 week if it’s not humid. They can be refrigerated for up to 6 months
Making (and eating) nian gao is new to me- though I’m no stranger to Asian confections, this is more in the realm of traditional, family-centric holiday food than casual snack mochis. The rich toffee-color and simplicity of it won me over, so I tried it anyway. I’m not really used to IP cooking, but I didn’t have a single spot of trouble making this. I think I halved the recipe and steamed it in a smallish glass bowl for 75 minutes to be safe. After cooling, it was firm through and through, and when I tried it pan fried with some egg?? WOOOOOOOW, so good! I loved how rich and chewy it was, with the light sweetness from coconut sugar. Compared to other nian gao recipes I looked at, this was by far the easiest with the least amount of ingredients to deal with.
wow..you are a brave soul indeed! I really appreciate that you take the time to report back on your findings and what you think of the recipes. I honestly enjoy reading your reviews 🙂
May I know if I don’t have dark brown sugar, can i use brown sugar instead? Thanks.
Hi Lily, yes you can use regular brown sugar, the color will just be slightly brighter, but still good enough caramel color
My apologies. Thought I had followed to the letter, but did not. I used the wrong type of rice flour. I will try again.
Hi JRR, you probably used the regular rice flour ? 🙂 I hope it turns out great for you next round 🙂
Tried the recipe using the Instant Pot. I followed the directions to the letter but the finished product was overcooked. Next time I will try steaming which will allow a little better opportunity for observation. Although being overcooked the taste was good and we enjoyed eating.
Thank you for sharing! Pressure cooking nian gao is so much more efficient in terms of energy, gas and water usage – I’m a convert and will never steam nian gao over a stovetop again! I ended up splitting the recipe into 2 6″ tins and cooked them in 2 different pressure cookers. I found it wasn’t quite the level of caramelization I liked at 45mins, so I cooked one for 1.5 hours, and another for 2.5 hours. The 2.5 hours was noticeably darker! I also added 4 knotted pandan leaves while making the brown sugar syrup and let it steep while cooling – it added quite a bit of fragrance to the batter, but I’m not sure if it will translate to the finished product.
Hi Priscilla, I know. Pressure cooker definitely more practical and convenient. Thank you for sharing your experience. Does your nian gao has nice pandan flavor?
I made this for my Teochew husband and he said it was tastier than the Nian gao he had growing up! I altered the recipe to cook it in a crockpot and it turned out perfect.
Hi Raycee, I’m so happy to know that it has your hubby’s approval 🙂 Crockpot is also a great way to cook this nian gao! Thank you for your feedback 🙂