The pronunciation of niangao sounds like 'year high' (年高), which symbolizes a higher income, a higher position, the growth of children, and generally the promise of a better year. Niangao was originally used as an offering in ritual ceremonies before it gradually became a Spring Festival food.
Niangao is usually made from glutinous rice flour, wheat starch, salt, water and sugar. It is delicious when steamed, fried, or even eaten cold. Within the extensive land of China, customs vary in different areas: white rice cake is eaten in northern China, yellow rice cake in the northern frontier of China, water-mill-made rice cake from southern China, and Hongguigao (红龟糕 'red turtle cake') from Taiwan, are the most representative ones.
The flavors of niangao can be divided into two major kinds according to geographical differences: sweet rice cake is usually made in northern China by steaming or frying, while, in southern China, rice cake can be sweet or savory, cooked by steaming, sliced-frying, or even cooking into soup.
In Beijing, New Year cakes are on sale in many Islamic snack shops, especially during the Spring Festival. They are also found at places like Qianmen Snack Street and Jiumen Snack Shop.
Guangdong Niangao is often like a soft, sticky dough, made from glutinous rice flour, peanut oil, and shelled melon seeds, and wrapped in bamboo leaves. Rice cakes made in this way taste soft and sweet.
Hainan New Year cakes are made before the Spring Festival as gifts to share, with glutinous rice flour, sugar, sesame seeds, red dates and water as the main ingredients. There are some special ways to enjoy a Hainan Niangao, such as frying, baking, and boiling.
In the Jiangsu and Zhejiang areas you have different choices of New Year cake fillings, such as sweet-scented osmanthus flower sugar, lard oil, and sweet red beans.
Traditional steps to make a rice cake are: first, put some steamed rice into a big stone container; second, beat it with a long handled wooden hammer until the rice becomes a glutinous paste; then take the paste out, cut it into small pieces (about 150 grams per piece); and lastly, roll them out into 3-centimeter strips. Many people in rural areas still observe this ancient method to make New Year cakes.
In Jiangsu Province, especially in Suzhou, osmanthus flower sugar rice cakes and lard oil rice cakes are very popular, both made from glutinous rice. While in Zhejiang, the most common one is Niningbo Niangao, made from rice which has been crushed in a water mill.
Niangao has a history of more than 3,000 years. Early in the Liao Dynasty (907–1125) people in Beijing had the custom of eating New Year cakes on the first day of the first month of the lunar year. During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) and the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912), Niangao had already become a common folk snack, and remains so today.
As an indispensable part of the Spring Festival, niangao has a story about its origin. It is said that Suzhou is the place where niangao came from.
In the Spring and Autumn Period (722–481 BC) of ancient China, the whole country was divided into different small kingdoms and people suffered from the chaos of war. At that time, Suzhou was the capital of the Wu Kingdom. Strong walls were built to protect Wu Kingdom from attacks, and the king held a banquet to celebrate their completion.
All of the people ceased to worry about the war, except for the Prime Minister Wu Zixu (伍子胥). He told his entourages: "War should not be viewed lightly. The strong wall is a good protection indeed, but if the enemy state besieges our kingdom, the wall is also a hard barrier to ourselves. In case things really go that badly, remember to dig a hole under the wall.".
Inevitably, many years later, Wu Zixu passed away, and his words came true. Many people starved to death during the seige. The soldiers did what Wu Zixu told them before and found that the wall under the earth was built with special bricks made from glutinous rice flour. This kind of food saved many people from starvation. These bricks were the original niangao.
After that, people made niangao every year to commemorate Wu Zixu. As time passed, niangao became what is nowadays known as Chinese New Year cake.
Niangao is made from glutinous rice and high levels of sugar; it is high in calories, and may be bad if over-consumed. Therefore you should not eat too many rice cakes, especially if you suffer from obesity, diabetes, or elevated triglyceride levels.
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