Top 10 Lucky Traditional Chinese New Year Food Dishes & Nian Gao Sticky Rice Cake Recipe

Chinese New Year animals

The twelve Chinese New Year zodiac animals

Happy Chinese New Year, everyone!

As a proud Chinese Canadian, I couldn’t help but write a quick blog post announcing the start of a new year in the lunar calendar… which officially started yesterday on February 10, 2013.

And if you’re familiar with the Chinese calendar, you’ve likely heard of the 12 zodiac animals. Each animal presides over a year within the 12-year cycle of the Chinese calendar.

2013? It’s the year of the snake!

So congrats to you if you were also born in a snake year. According to Chinese symbology, people born during the year of the snake are characterized to be highly intelligent, but also unscrupulous. Take from that what you will!

Top 10 Lucky Traditional Chinese New Year Food Dishes to Celebrate the Year of the Snake

With the start of a brand new year in the Chinese calendar, comes along with it a smorgasbord of Chinese New Year celebration foods.

Luck, wealth, fortune & prosperity… Chinese New Year food customs and superstitions run deep!

There are certain food dishes & ingredients that are always eaten in celebration of a new year due to the similarity of their names with Chinese words symbolizing luck, fortune or other expressions of happiness.

Here are 10 examples, listed in alphabetical order…
(Note: You might be interested to know that each of these food items are represented in my list of top 10 favorite Chinese New Year dishes! Scroll down for details.)

#1) Bamboo Shoots

  • The words 竹笋尖 (pronounced zhú sǔn jiān) represent “wealth,” because the words sound similar to a separate Chinese phrase that translates to “wishing that everything would be well”

#2) Bean Curd or Tofu (Dried)

  • The words 豆腐 (pronounced dòu fǔ) translate to “fulfillment of wealth & happiness”
  • Interesting note: Never serve fresh tofu, as the color white is associated with death!

#3) Chinese Cabbage

  • The words 白菜 (pronounced pak choy) translate to “100 types of prosperity luck”

#4) Eggs

  • The word 蛋 (pronounced dàn) means fertility

#5) Fish (Whole)

  • The word 魚 (pronounced ), meaning “fish”, has the same pronunciation as the word 餘, which translates to “remain or surplus” and “having leftovers of money” (i.e. an increase in prosperity)

#6) Jiaozi (Pot Sticker Dumplings)

  • The words 饺子 (pronounced jiǎozi) share the same pronunciation as the words 角子 (also pronounced jiǎozi), which translate to a small coin used in ancient times (i.e. equivalent to “wealth”)

#7) Lettuce

  • The words 生菜 (pronounced shēngcài) represent “prosperity”
  • In particular, foods that are rolled in lettuce (i.e. lettuce rolls) are associated with “having a child soon”

#8) Mixed Vegetables

  • The words 什锦蔬菜 (pronounced shíjǐn shūcài) translate to mean “family harmony”

#9) Nian Gao (Sticky Rice Cakes)

  • The words 年糕 (pronounced nián’gāo) used in naming this traditional New Year dish are associated with the symbolism of “increasing prosperity every year”

#10) Turnip Cakes

  • The words 萝卜糕 (pronounced luóbo gāo) represent “good omen”

Here are ten lucky traditional Chinese New Year dishes that I remember fondly from my childhood.

Lucky Chinese New Year food items - Sesame seed balls
#1: Sesame Seed Balls
I love these things!
Sold at Chinese bakeries, these deep-fried white sesame seed-covered dough balls are stuffed with yummy red bean paste
#2: “Nian Gao” Sticky Rice Cakes
You’ll find these traditional Chinese New Year pudding “cakes” in white or brown varieties (depending on the type of sugar used)
They’re made out of glutinous rice flour, wheat starch, salt, water & sugar and are cooked via steaming or baking
Lucky Chinese New Year food items - Nian gao sticky rice cakes
Lucky Chinese New Year food items - Turnip cakes
#3: Turnip Cakes
Another cherished childhood favorite of mine!
Turnip cakes are made primarily out of shredded white Chinese radish or daikon and rice flour, although additional ingredients could be added to enhance the flavor (including dried shrimp, dried Shiitake mushrooms, Chinese sausages & Jinhua ham… all chopped and stir-fried first beforehand)
These “cakes” have a pudding consistency & are usually cut into squares before they’re pan-fried to perfection (crispy on the outside and soft on the inside!)
#4: “Jiaozi” Pan-Fried Dumplings
Traditionally eaten in Northern China, these pot sticker dumplings are served pan-fried
They’re usually made by mixing ground pork & vegetables (such as cabbage) to form the filling, then wrapping the mixture in a thinly rolled piece of dough that’s sealed by pressing the edges together in a crimping pattern
During Chinese New Year, “jiaozi” are referred to as “Yuanbao” in reference to the ancient, silver ingot-shaped Chinese currency (i.e. eating them is said to bring prosperity)
Lucky Chinese New Year food items - Jiaozi pot sticker pan fried dumplings
Lucky Chinese New Year food items - Jau Gok deep fried dumplings
#5: “Jau Gok” Deep-Fried Dumplings
Traditionally eaten in Guangdong Province (the Southern part of China) as part of Cantonese cuisine, these dumplings are made out of glutinous rice dough & cooked via deep-frying in a wok
The salty variety contains ingredients such as pork, pieces of Chinese sausages as well as pieces of Chinese black mushrooms
In comparison, the sweet coconut version is made by mixing dried coconut crumbs with sugar
While “jiaozi” resembles ancient Chinese silver ingots (a.k.a. currency), “jau gok” is said to resemble gold ingots
#6: Vegetarian Buddhist “Jai” Dish
Known also as “Buddha’s delight,” it’s a strictly vegetarian dish commonly consumed in Buddhist cuisine by monks who are vegetarian
It typically contains dried tofu, bamboo shoots, plus other various vegetables & vegetarian ingredients (although sometimes with the addition of seafood or eggs)
The vegetables are usually cooked in soy sauce-based liquid with other seasonings until the vegetables & tofu become tender
Lucky Chinese New Year food items - Vegetarian Jai dish
Lucky Chinese New Year food items - Chinese tea eggs
#7: Chinese Tea Eggs
Also known as “marble eggs” because once the eggshell cracks, the dark lines formed from the marinade sauce resembles a block of marble
Tea eggs are basically the Chinese version of hard-boiled eggs
The eggs are prepared by first marinating them in various spices (oftentimes Chinese five-spice powder is used, which contains ground cinnamon, star anise, fennel seeds, cloves & Szechuan peppercorns), soy sauce & black tea leaves, before they’re hard-boiled in water
#8: Asian Chicken Lettuce Wraps
This dish is great as an appetizer or entrée, and is a guaranteed crowd pleaser (not to mention a hit with the kids!)
It’s prepared by stir-frying chicken with vegetables (such as red pepper, water chestnuts, celery, garlic & ginger), mixing together a sauce (built around soy sauce & oyster sauce), then topping washed & dried head iceberg leaves with the filling & sauce and eating the lettuce wraps “taco-style
Lucky Chinese New Year food items - Asian chicken lettuce wraps
Lucky Chinese New Year food items - steamed whole fish
#9: Steamed Whole Fish
In Chinese cuisine, steamed fresh fish is usually served whole (i.e. with the head & tail intact), cooked in soy sauce and topped with ginger & green onion
Whole fish is commonly served to celebrate the new year because it symbolizes “happy endings & beginnings,” “everything is perfect”… and general “health, wealth, happiness & prosperity”
#10: “Poon Choi” Big Bowl Feast
Originating from Cantonese cuisine in Hong Kong, this dish is often served in metal, porcelain or wooden basins
It’s an elaborate dish consisting of numerous ingredients (such as pork, beef, lamb, chicken, duck, abalone, ginseng, shark fin, fish maw, prawn, crab, dried mushrooms, fish balls, squid, dried eel, dried shrimp, pigskin, beancurd & Chinese radish) all served together in one container
Instead of mixing the ingredients together, the various food items are layered one on top of each other… with each layer to be eaten separately (this is an important feature of “poon choi” dishes!)
Lucky Chinese New Year food items - Poon Choi dish

Cooking the Quintessential Chinese New Year Dish: “Nian Gao” Sticky Rice Cake Recipe

Recipe for cooking Nian Gao Chinese New Year sticky rice cake in a fish moldI may have listed “nian gao” sticky rice cakes as my second favorite Chinese New Year celebration food item. However, this lunar New Year pudding is pretty much universally known as the most traditional dish of choice to serve when celebrating the dawn of a new year in the Chinese calendar.

So in order to ensure a prosperous new year is within reach for you in the months ahead, I recommend cooking your own “nian gao” rice cake pudding.

Here is a recipe for cooking a classier version of the traditional Chinese New Year sticky rice cake that features coconut… created by Chef Jack Zhang and served at Four Seasons Hotel Shanghai. Much thanks to Katie Dillon from the Have Family Will Travel blog for posting the full recipe!

Cheers (& once again, happy Chinese New Year!),

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Director of Search Marketing by day, die hard knitter by night. Arts and crafts lover. One of a kind jewelry designer. Supporter of buying handmade. Stylishly domestic homemaker. Frugal shopaholic. Shutterbug. Globetrotter. Geek girl who ❤s computer nerds. Blogger for the Knitting and Purling blog.
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Nian gao sticky rice cake image courtesy of Family.FourSeasons.com. Stock images used with permission under license agreement. Computer graphics edited by the Knitting and Purling blog.

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