Nian Gao with Red Bean (紅豆年糕)

Learn how to make this classic Lunar New Year dessert, with a few unique twists from my family's recipe!

Prep Time
15 min
Total Time
90 min
Yields
4 servings

A Recipe by Daddy Lau

My dad's been cooking Chinese food for over 50 years - as a kid fending for himself in Guangzhou, as the head chef of his own restaurant, and as a loving father in our home.

Hopefully, by learning this recipe, you'll get to experience some of the delicious joy we felt growing up eating his food!

- Randy

Today, Daddy Lau will be teaching us our family recipe and for making the perfect Nian Gao with Red Bean! (紅豆年糕).

What you'll be learning:

  • My family’s spin on this traditional recipe!
  • Context on the key ingredients, and the equipment you'll need to make this dish (+ alternatives)
  • The various idioms and meanings behind Nian Gao and all of its various toppings

Nian Gao is a popular dessert and gift during Lunar New Year!

Technically, lots of cakes (taro cake, turnip cake, sponge cake, etc) qualify as a "New Year Cake", but this is the recipe that comes to mind when people speak of Nian Gao.

Flavor Profile

If you've never had Nian Gao before, it's a chewy, sticky, semi-sweet bite of deliciousness. It's a lot like a Japanese mochi, and my family's addition of red beans gives it sort of Snickers bar texture with less crunch and without the chocolate taste.

It's absolutely delicious. If you pan fry them in oil, which is also optional, it's made even more delicious with a subtle soft & crispy contrast.

Reaching New Heights

Nian Gao (nìhn gōu in Cantonese) roughly translates to "New Year Cake", and it's a sticky rice cake with thousands of years of history and thousands more variations all across Asia.

My family makes Nian Gao year-round, but it’s a must during Lunar New Year. In Cantonese, the word for "cake 糕” shares the same sound as “high 高”, gōu, so cake is intertwined with many sayings and symbols of good luck.

There are several sayings that tie into the cake/high connection, such as:

  • bouh bouh gōu sīng 步步升 - climb step by step, rise steadily
  • faai gōu jéung daaih 快長大 - wishes for children to grow taller and bigger quickly

Ingredients

Weight: US
oz
g
Volume: US
cup
mL
Servings
4
    Main Ingredients
  • 8 oz brown sugar
  • 8 oz glutinous rice flour
  • 2 oz regular rice flour
  • 6 oz water (

    for cake batter

    )
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 7 oz red bean (

    optional

    )
  • 2 cups water (

    for red bean

    )
  • 2 tbsp coconut milk
  • Decorations
  • 5 red dates (

    aka jujubes

    )
  • 5 walnuts
  • roasted sesame seeds

On Red Beans

In Cantonese, red beans are called “hùhng dáu 红豆”. These are formally known as adzuki or azuki (アズキ) beans, which means “small bean” in Japanese.

Azuki beans started appearing in the wild around 50000 years ago, and started being domesticated in Asia around 3000 years ago. We talk about this in the video, but my dad actually used to grow his own beans in his old village in Toisan.

They’re extremely nutritious and have become a staple ingredient in a bunch of Asian desserts and sweets. However, the red bean itself actually isn’t sweet, and is usually combined with sugar and turned into red bean paste.

On Rice Flour

Also known as glutinous rice or sweet rice, sticky rice is used in a lot of Asian desserts and dishes, and is a staple of Southeast Asian cuisine. 

  • Compared to regular rice, sticky rice has a shorter grain, and is missing one of the two main molecular components of starch.
    • Starch typically contains amylose and amylopectin. Sticky rice is missing amylose.
  • This makes it easier to break down in hot water, and gives the rice its namesake. 
  • Also, even though it’s called glutinous rice, it’s completely gluten-free.

Equipment Needed

There are a few things you’ll need: a steamer, a cake pan, parchment paper, and a food scale. 

For steaming, it’s best to use a dedicated steamer, but you might be able to get away with using a wok with a steamer rack. 

For the cake pan, you can use whatever you might have at home, but it’ll make your life easier to use one with a removable base and/or a springform buckle. You’ll also want parchment paper to line the base with.

With a food scale, you’re able to be much more precise and create a smaller mess than you would with measuring cups. Measuring cups are based on volume, which can vary significantly depending on how you scoop, the density of the ingredient, and etcetera. 

Finding Asian Ingredients

Some of these ingredients are hard to find in a typical grocery store.

If you don't live near an Asian market, most or all of what my dad uses in this recipe can be found on Amazon:

I've also included some other Chinese kitchen essentials, used in many of my dad's other recipes.

These links are affiliate links, which means that if you use our links to purchase these ingredients, Amazon pays my family a small amount for the sale - at no extra cost to you. If you use these links, we really appreciate the support!

The first thing we'll want to do is prepare our red beans (7 oz).

  • Soak the red beans in water (room temperature) for 6-8 hours
  • Wash the beans by rinsing and massaging in water for 20-30 seconds
  • Pour the beans into a pot and add cold water (2 cups)
  • Bring the pot to a boil on high heat
  • Once boiling, adjust to low heat and simmer for 1-2 hours.

You'll know when the beans are done when the water is fully absorbed, and the beans turn into a mush when you squeeze them with your fingers.

The red beans are totally optional but very delicious. This recipe does not change at all if you decide to skip on red beans.

When the red bean is just about ready, we'll start creating our cake batter in several bowls. Like we mentioned before, I highly recommend using / getting a food scale for this.

I don't think you necessarily need to do it this way but my dad used several bowls in the process:

  • Bowl 1 - Add brown sugar (8 oz) and boiling water (6 oz), stir until the sugar has dissolved.
  • Bowl 2 - Add glutinous rice flour (8 oz), regular rice flour (2 oz), coconut milk (2 tbsp) (optional), olive oil (1 tbsp)

Combine bowls 1 and 2, and stir until there are no white clumps of flour remaining. The mix should be creamy and smooth, so you may need to add splashes of water if it's not there.

Next, we'll pour in the boiled red bean, and continue stirring. My dad employs a technique where he uses his left hand to turn the bowl in the opposite direction of his stirring (right) hand.

Let the batter sit for 5-10 minutes.

Fill the steamer with water, about 0.5 - 1" below where the cake pan will be sitting. Bring the steamer to a boil on high heat.

A pot designed for steaming (metal or bamboo are both fine) is the most ideal, but a wok or a pot with a lid & steamer rack works as well. The main concern is just to avoid having water splash onto the cake as the steaming occurs.

To make the cake easier to remove later, drizzle some oil on the interior of the cake pan's rim, and spread it around with your finger.

We'll also line the bottom of the pan with some parchment paper, cut to size.

Once the steamer has come to a boil, set the cake pan in the steamer, and pour the batter into the pan. Cover the steamer with its lid.

Steam the cake for 30 minutes on high heat, and 30 minutes on medium heat.

Once the time is up, we can check if it's done cooking by poking a chopstick into the cake. If the cake doesn't stick to the chopstick, then it's done.

This is all optional, but my parents like to decorate their nian gao with various toppings, each with their own endearing symbolism.

Some of these are meant for newlyweds (at the time of writing, my wife and I were recently married, and my sister recently got engaged!), and some are more general wishes of prosperity.

  • red dates (hùhng jóu 红枣)
    • we wish you'll have kids soon! (jóu sāang gwai jí 生贵子)
  • walnuts (hahp tòuh 桃)
    • a lifetime (literally, 100 years) of a happy marriage (baak nìhn hóu hahp 百年好)
  • sesame seeds (jī màh 芝麻)
    • steadily improve your life, career, studies, etc. (jī màh hōi fā jit jit gōu 芝麻开花节节髙)
    • this is analogous to how sesame plants flower, bit by bit, taller and taller.

Red dates are the most common decor (and also, the color red is a symbol of good luck), along with sesame seeds or coconut flakes.

I've also heard that some people will write out an auspicious phrase with their toppings.

Before we get to eat the cake, we need to let it cool down to room temperature, and then place it in the refrigerator overnight, ideally for at least 12 hours.

This allows the cake to harden and to be cut into slices.

It's important NOT to place it in the refrigerator immediately, as my parents warn that it can ruin your fridge.

Once the cake has cooled, carefully remove it from the cake pan, and slice them up however you'd like.

Pan-frying: optional but recommended

This is optional, but you can slice up the cake into thin 0.5" rectangular slices (see the video for an example of how my dad does this with a circular cake).

Heat up a pan with oil, and load up the pan just enough so that each individual slice is able to touch the surface of the pan. Pan fry for 2-3 minutes on each side.

Summary

Nian Gao with Red Bean (紅豆年糕)
Learn how to make this classic Lunar New Year dessert, with a few unique twists from my family's recipe!
  • Prep Time: 15 min
  • Total Time: 90 min
  • Yield: 4 servings
    Main Ingredients
  • 8 oz brown sugar
  • 8 oz glutinous rice flour
  • 2 oz regular rice flour
  • 6 oz water (

    for cake batter

    )
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 7 oz red bean (

    optional

    )
  • 2 cups water (

    for red bean

    )
  • 2 tbsp coconut milk
  • Decorations
  • 5 red dates (

    aka jujubes

    )
  • 5 walnuts
  • roasted sesame seeds
Step 1 - Soak & cook red beans↑ Jump to details

The first thing we'll want to do is prepare our red beans (7 oz).

  • Soak the red beans in water (room temperature) for 6-8 hours
  • Wash the beans by rinsing and massaging in water for 20-30 seconds
  • Pour the beans into a pot and add cold water (2 cups)
  • Bring the pot to a boil on high heat
  • Once boiling, adjust to low heat and simmer for 1-2 hours.

You'll know when the beans are done when the water is fully absorbed, and the beans turn into a mush when you squeeze them with your fingers.

The red beans are totally optional but very delicious. This recipe does not change at all if you decide to skip on red beans.

Step 2 - Create cake batter↑ Jump to details

When the red bean is just about ready, we'll start creating our cake batter in several bowls. Like we mentioned before, I highly recommend using / getting a food scale for this.

I don't think you necessarily need to do it this way but my dad used several bowls in the process:

  • Bowl 1 - Add brown sugar (8 oz) and boiling water (6 oz), stir until the sugar has dissolved.
  • Bowl 2 - Add glutinous rice flour (8 oz), regular rice flour (2 oz), coconut milk (2 tbsp) (optional), olive oil (1 tbsp)

Combine bowls 1 and 2, and stir until there are no white clumps of flour remaining. The mix should be creamy and smooth, so you may need to add splashes of water if it's not there.

Next, we'll pour in the boiled red bean, and continue stirring. My dad employs a technique where he uses his left hand to turn the bowl in the opposite direction of his stirring (right) hand.

Let the batter sit for 5-10 minutes.

Step 3 - Oil cake pan, load steamer↑ Jump to details

Fill the steamer with water, about 0.5 - 1" below where the cake pan will be sitting. Bring the steamer to a boil on high heat.

A pot designed for steaming (metal or bamboo are both fine) is the most ideal, but a wok or a pot with a lid & steamer rack works as well. The main concern is just to avoid having water splash onto the cake as the steaming occurs.

To make the cake easier to remove later, drizzle some oil on the interior of the cake pan's rim, and spread it around with your finger.

We'll also line the bottom of the pan with some parchment paper, cut to size.

Once the steamer has come to a boil, set the cake pan in the steamer, and pour the batter into the pan. Cover the steamer with its lid.

Step 4 - Steam cake↑ Jump to details

Steam the cake for 30 minutes on high heat, and 30 minutes on medium heat.

Once the time is up, we can check if it's done cooking by poking a chopstick into the cake. If the cake doesn't stick to the chopstick, then it's done.

Step 5 - Decorate the cake↑ Jump to details

This is all optional, but my parents like to decorate their nian gao with various toppings, each with their own endearing symbolism.

Some of these are meant for newlyweds (at the time of writing, my wife and I were recently married, and my sister recently got engaged!), and some are more general wishes of prosperity.

  • red dates (hùhng jóu 红枣)
    • we wish you'll have kids soon! (jóu sāang gwai jí 生贵子)
  • walnuts (hahp tòuh 桃)
    • a lifetime (literally, 100 years) of a happy marriage (baak nìhn hóu hahp 百年好)
  • sesame seeds (jī màh 芝麻)
    • steadily improve your life, career, studies, etc. (jī màh hōi fā jit jit gōu 芝麻开花节节髙)
    • this is analagous to how sesame plants flower, bit by bit, taller and taller.

Red dates are the most common decor (and also, the color red is a symbol of good luck), along with sesame seeds or coconut flakes.

I've also heard that some people will write out an auspicious phrase with their toppings.

Step 6 - Cool overnight↑ Jump to details

Before we get to eat the cake, we need to let it cool down to room temperature, and then place it in the refrigerator overnight, ideally for at least 12 hours.

This allows the cake to harden and to be cut into slices.

It's important NOT to place it in the refrigerator immediately, as my parents warn that it can ruin your fridge.

Step 7 - Remove from pan, slice cake, pan fry↑ Jump to details

Once the cake has cooled, carefully remove it from the cake pan, and slice them up however you'd like.

Pan-frying: optional but recommended

This is optional, but you can slice up the cake into thin 0.5" rectangular slices (see the video for an example of how my dad does this with a circular cake).

Heat up a pan with oil, and load up the pan just enough so that each individual slice is able to touch the surface of the pan. Pan fry for 2-3 minutes on each side.

Step 8 - Take pictures
Whip out your camera (1). Begin taking photos (1,000,000). Pick your favorites!
Step 9 - Share and tag us on Instagram @madewithlau #madewithlau!
Did you have fun making this recipe? We'd love to see & hear about it. (Especially my dad. He would be THRILLED!)

Gifting these to friends / family

It's pretty common to make these for friends and family! Some notes:

  • You can use disposable aluminum cake pans, with the same exact recipe timing.
  • If you're gifting this during Lunar New Year and following Chinese tradition, it's ideal to gift a whole entire cake, not a portion of one that you made. My parents don't always follow this, but having a complete cake (or fish, or chicken, or etc.) is considered "yùhn méih 完美", which means perfect, consummate.
  • If you're making a smaller / bigger batches as gift, you can use our ingredients section on the website to scale up / down the recipe, and adjust the steaming time accordingly.

Enjoy!

I have so many memories eating this with my family, especially during all of our heartwarming holiday celebrations.

Now, hopefully, you can create your own memories with this tradition with your loved ones.

Also, I cordially invite you to eat with us and learn more about the dish, Chinese culture, and hang out with our adorable son. We get into a lot of detail about Chinese symbolism and superstitions, and what life was like for my parents growing up in China.

Cheers, and thanks for cooking with us!

Feel free to comment below if you have any questions about the recipe.

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About Made With Lau

We started Made With Lau to honor and share the legacy of our wonderful parents, Jenny and Chung Sun Lau.

Our hope is that these posts give you (and our future generations) a glimpse into how great they are!