Sweet treats symbolize a sweet life in China, so desserts are necessary for a complete New Year's celebration. About half a month before Chinese New Year's Eve, almost every Chinese family starts to prepare for the most important festival—a 15-day celebration filled with family time, red packets, and tons of symbolic food to ring in the start of the planting season.
The following are several popular Chinese New Year desserts, each with an auspicious symbolism. When paying a New Year visit, you can pick one of these desserts to make your New Year gifts even better.
1. Steamed New Year Cake — Increasing Prosperity and Promotions
- Chinese name: 年糕 niángāo /nyen-gaoww/ 'year cake'
Steamed New Year cake is China's most famous and most popular New Year dessert. Its Chinese name is 年糕 (niángāo), a homophone for "year higher" (年高), which symbolizes increasing prosperity and promotions year after year.
This sweet (a salty cake is also available), temptingly squishy cake is mainly made from glutinous rice flour and brown sugar. Its round shape represents togetherness and completeness.
When the cake becomes stale and hard after a few days, you can slice it up to the thickness of your thumb and steam or pan-fry it until soft.
Click to read more on niangao.
2. Rice Dumplings — Family Togetherness
- Chinese name: 汤圆 tāngyuán /tung-ywen/
Rice dumplings play their most important role in the Lantern Festival, which is the last day of the Chinese New Year period. Therefore, they are one of the top Chinese New Year desserts.
These sweet rice balls are often infused with black sesame seeds or mashed peanuts. Eating this auspicious dessert signifies unity within the family.
3. Steamed Sponge Cake — Prosperity
- Chinese name: 发糕 fāgāo /faa-gaoww/
The Chinese name for steamed sponge cake is 发糕 (fāgāo), reminiscent of the Chinese for making a fortune (发财). It is a traditional sweet food and many Chinese people eat it for breakfast.
Because glutinous rice wine is used when making this brown or white steamed sponge cake it has a special fragrance. It will become cold and hard so just steam it again and then you can enjoy the spongy cake.
4. Sesame Seed Balls/Sesame Seed Baguettes — Fullness
- Chinese name: 麻球 máqiú /maa-chyoh/ or 麻通 mátōng /maa-tong/
Sesame seed balls area tasty type of fried food made from glutinous rice flour that is filled with red bean paste, rolled in white sesame seeds, and fried. They are crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.
Sesame seed baguettes are fried until the inside becomes crispy, and is shaped like a cylinder. They have a longer shelf life so are much more poplar during the Chinese New Year period. Packed sesame seed baguettes can be found in supermarkets, while sesame seed balls are mainly available at bakeries.
5. Eight-Treasure Rice Pudding — Good Luck
- Chinese name: 八宝饭 bābǎofàn /baa-baoww-fan/
Eight is a lucky number in Chinese culture, hence the name of 'eight-treasure rice pudding'. It is true to the dessert's name that the pudding really has eight types of "treasure", including red jujubes, lotus seeds, dried longans, and other various dried, candied fruits.
The steamed pudding is soaked in sugar and butter, and the top is interspersed with the eight treasures.
6. Fried Dough Twists — Reunion
- Chinese name: 麻花 máhuā /maa-hwaa/
This fried food is a little bit harder than a sesame seed baguette. Two or three bars of dough paste are twisted together and fried until they are crispy. It is much more popular in North China.
The fried dough twists produced in Tianjin are the most famous in China, due to their renowned crispy texture, rich flavor, and creative ingredients. They are a specialty of Tianjin.
7. Sugar Rings — Togetherness and Sweetness
- Chinese name: 糖环 tánghuán /tung-hwan/ 'sugar ring'
A sugar ring to South China is what a fried dough twist is to North China. This flower-shaped food is a favorite New Year dessert for kids, with a crispy texture and sweet taste.
8. Fried Flour-Coated Peanuts — Vitality and Longevity
- Chinese name: 鱼皮花生 yúpíhuāshēng /yoo-pee-hwaa-shnng/ 'fish skin peanut'
Peanuts are also known as longevity nuts, symbolizing vitality and longevity in Chinese culture. Chinese people have invented many ways to eat peanuts, and making fried flour-coated peanuts is one of the most popular ones.
Shelled peanuts are coated in a syrupy mixture of brown sugar and flour, and then baked until they are light brown in color.
9. Peanut Brittle — Longevity and Good Fortune
- Chinese name: 花生糖 huāshēngtáng /hwaa-shnng-tung/
This is another popular way to eat peanuts, especially during the Chinese New Year period. This sweet, crispy, and fragrant dessert is mainly made with shelled peanuts and malt sugar.
In markets, you can find beautifully packed peanut brittle, as well as peanut brittle sold by the meter.
10. Caramel Treats
- Chinese name: 沙琪玛 shāqímǎ /shaa-chee-maa/
This soft and sweet dessert can be found easily in supermarkets and bakeries. Strips of dough paste are fried until they reach a yellowish color, then are mixed with syrup, which holds them together, and cut into cubes when cold.
11. Walnut Cookies — Happiness
- Chinese name: 核桃酥 hétáosū /her-taoww-soo/
It is a popular Chinese New Year dessert and almost the whole of China shares the same manufacturing method.
The main ingredients are walnuts and flour. The temptingly yellowish cookies have many cracks in them, with a soft texture and walnut fragrance.
Travel with Us and Celebrate the Chinese New Year as the Locals Do
Do you want to experience Chinese culture during the Chinese New Year period? China Highlights' tours offer the opportunity to celebrate a traditional Chinese New Year with a local family. See our most recommended tours below:
- 11-Day Classic Wonders of China Tour: top China sights and Chinese New Year celebrations with a local family in Guilin
- 6-Day Beijing Essence Tour with Traditional New Year Activities