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Mother’s New Year Nian Gao

This recipe closely approximates the sticky rice cake, known as nian gao, that my mother used to make for the Chinese New Year celebration. She used a fresh glutinous rice dough that I haven’t been able to find, but glutinous or sweet rice flour does a nice job. Perhaps I’m being fussy, but somehow, nothing can ever be the same as my mother’s nian gao. I make my nian gao thin because it keeps me from eating too much of it!

If you can't find the Sweet Olive Sugar you may garnish the nian gao with some brown sugar or leave it plain.


(1) 9-inch diameter, 3/4-inch thick cake

2 cups glutinous rice flour*
1 cup white sugar
1 cup water
2 drops red food coloring, optional
1 tablespoon sweet olive sugar

  1. Mix the rice flour, sugar and water together in a medium bowl until smooth. You will have a thin batter. Stir in the food coloring, if using.
  2. Grease a 9” heatproof pie plate with canola or other vegetable oil. Pour the rice flour batter into the pie plate.
  3. Bring water in a steamer to a boil. Place the pie plate into the steamer and steam for about 20 minutes, or until the batter appears translucent and the tip of a knife inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.
  4. Remove from steamer and while still hot, sprinkle sweet olive sugar over the top. You may serve immediately or cool and cover for later use.
  5. Nian gao must be eaten hot so its soft and sticky. There are three ways to re-heat the nian gao: Cut the cake as you would a pie, and re-steam however many pieces you wish until they are soft and sticky, about 5 to 8 minutes depending upon how many slices you are reheating. You may also heat in a microwave oven. Cover the nian gao and heat about 1 minute on high, or until soft. The nian gao may also be pan-fried in a lightly oiled non-stick skillet over medium heat. Lightly brown both sides for a crispy surface. Some people like to dip the slices in a beaten egg first, but I prefer to just fry the nian gao plain.

*Sometimes called Sweet Rice flour.

Copyright© 2009 Helen Chen. All rights reserved.
Helen's Asian Kitchen is not affiiated with Joyce Chen products.


  1. I'm desperately looking for a Helen Chen stainless steel perfect rice cooker to replace one I broke. I don't want the bamboo handle one. Is there any way to find and purchase one. Please advise.

    1. I can help you find a replacement. Send me your email or phone number. Thank you.



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Like so many of us, Helen Chen learned to cook at her mother's side. But few of us had a mother like Joyce Chen. Helen grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where her mother prepared the authentic dishes of her native Shanghai and Beijing with the sort of regularity the rest of us came to expect of macaroni and cheese or meatloaf.

"I remember when I was little, watching my mother prepare meals for family and friends. I once wrote a list of my favorite Chinese dishes," Helen recalls, "I came up with 150 recipes. I do not have one or two favorites. All the dishes on the list are traditional and all are ones that I learned from my mother. That is what I love most about Chinese food: its variety. Taste, texture and color all come into play, as does personality and culture. I think this is what cooking is all about."

Soft spoken and intensely intelligent, Helen Chen was born in Shanghai and moved to the U.S. with her family while still a baby. Helen grew up, as she describes it, in a traditional Chinese-American household. "When I was young I wanted to be totally American," she remembers. "It wasn't until I was in high school that I realized how lucky I was to have two cultures."

Today, Helen Chen is a widely acknowledged expert in Chinese cooking. Besides her role as an educator and cookbook author, she also is a corporate spokesperson and business consultant to the house wares industry. In 2007 she created and developed a new line of Asian kitchenware under the brand name Helen’s Asian Kitchen®, expressly for Harold Import Company in New Jersey.

Having been born in China and raised and educated in the United States, Helen brings the best of both worlds to her approach to the art of Chinese cuisine. She understands the needs of the American cook as only a native can, yet she is intimately knowledgeable in the culinary practices and philosophy of China.

In her active role as a teacher and educator, Helen teaches Chinese cuisine at Boston University; and, through the Anderson Foundation’s enrichment program ‘Cooking Up Culture’ she teaches Boston area school children from grades 1-12 about Chinese cuisine and culture. She also teaches Asian cuisine in numerous cooking schools across the country.

Helen has lectured to various professional and culinary organizations such as the International Association of Culinary Professionals, Boston University Seminars in the Arts and Culinary Arts, Oldways Preservations and Exchange Trust, Small Business Development Center, The Culinary Historians of Boston, Women Chefs and Restaurateurs and the Culinary Guild of New England. In addition, she conducts culinary tours of Boston’s Chinatown and is a frequent guest chef at cooking schools around the U.S.

Helen is the author of Helen Chen’s Chinese Home Cooking (Hearst Books, 1994), Peking Cuisine (Orion Books,1997) and Helen’s Asian Kitchen: Easy Chinese Stir-Fries (John Wiley & Sons, 2009). A second book in the Helen’s Asian Kitchen series, Helen’s Asian Kitchen: Easy Asian Noodles is scheduled for publication in January, 2010.