Soft, chewy, and wholesome, traditional nian gao is a classic Chinese New Year sweet that you’re almost guaranteed to find — and taste — at some point in the yearly festivities. The ubiquitous glutinous rice cake is an ever-popular crowd-pleaser that never goes out of season, especially since its name (which literally translates from Mandarin to “year cake”) also symbolises growth for a better year ahead.
That doesn’t mean that this traditional treat can’t evolve with the times. Even now, restaurants around the island are gearing up for the Year of the Dragon with appropriately auspicious twists on the time-worn nian gao, gussying up the unfussy dessert with all manner of vibrant colours and intriguing flavours. Read on for seven of the most interesting nian gao renditions to wow your guests this Chinese New Year.
1. Shang Palace: Trehalose, Peach Gum, Rose, and Coconut Milk Nian Gao
Shang Palace at Shangri-La Singapore is kicking off the nian gao-centric feasts for the Year of the Dragon, unleashing an array of five nian gao flavours ranging from the innovative to the traditional.
These include an all-new healthful glutinous rice cake laced with trehalose (a natural sweetener believed to help with regulating blood sugar), peach gum, rose, and coconut milk; an earthy two-layer mung bean and dhal nian gao; as well as a tri-flavoured rendition brought back by popular demand featuring a layer of purple sweet potato on top of pumpkin, atop a traditional coconut milk and brown sugar combo.
2. Jade: Red Bean and Green Tea Nian Gao
Jade at The Fullerton Hotel Singapore is ringing in the conviviality of the Lunar New Year with an elegant touch as Chinese executive chef Leong Chee Yeng presents a novel take on nian gao both refined and comforting. The dessert is painstakingly assembled into alternating layers, with the classic glutinous rice cake and its brownish hues set against an earthy punch of green tea-infused nian gao studded with red beans.
Those looking for an eye-catching conversation starter might opt instead for their returning ‘gram-worthy osmanthus-scented nian gao crowned with a koi fish “swimming” within a jade ring.
3. Wan Hao Chinese Restaurant : Golden Nian Gao Tarts with Gula Melaka and Grated Coconut
Ondeh-ondeh meets nian gao for the Lunar New Year offerings of Singapore Marriott Tang Plaza Hotel’s Wan Hao Chinese Restaurant. The all-new snack features a pandan-tinged tart cradling — what else — sticky glutinous rice cake, tricked up with gula melaka, grated coconut, and fresh pandan juice.
You can also expect the restaurant’s previous signature nian gao tart flavours, including yam paste, pineapple paste, and purple sweet potato.
4. Goodwood Park Hotel: Fortune Koi Fish ‘Nian Gao’ filled with Black Glutinous Rice
Goodwood Park Hotel heralds the arrival of spring with not one but two inspired takes on nian gao. The first is a riff on a returning favourite that debuted in 2020, featuring nian gao paste lovingly crafted into the shape and hue of an auspicious Koi fish, a symbol of the lucky Chinese New Year season. While the lucky fish once held red beans in their belly, they are now filled with a hearty and nutty filling of black glutinous rice, reminiscent of pulut hitam.
The second dessert, though also a reappearance, earns its place on this list thanks to its mix of culinary creativity and sheer indulgence. The fact that it plays on Goodwood Park Hotel’s penchant for all things durian doesn’t hurt — enter the Chilled D24 Durian ‘Nian Gao’ Roll, featuring a nian gao sheet rolled with a blend of D24 durian puree and kaya before receiving a final dusting of grated coconut.
5. Pan Pacific Orchard: Ingot-shaped Nian Gao with Soya Bean Crisps
Pan Pacific Orchard commemorates its first Chinese New Year celebration since its opening last June with a host of refined takeaway treats sprung from the mind of its recently appointed Chinese master chef, Leung Wing Cheung.
One of the dessert highlights is the Guandong native and former executive chef of Si Chuan Dou Hua’s reimagining of nian gao. The rustic dessert, normally presented simply as a round cake, is given a luxe kueh lapis-esque makeover as a multi-layered, multi-hued ingot — yet another symbol of prosperity for the season. It can also be found on one of the set menus of the hotel’s newly opened Cantonese private dining space, The Chairman’s Lounge (also headed by Leung).
6. Man Fu Yuan: Baked Purple Sweet Potatoes Nian Gao Tart
Man Fu Yuan at InterContinental Singapore elevates Chinese New Year gifting with two celebratory bundles centred around nian gao tarts and an aromatic go-with of tea. There’s a sweet potato version encased in buttery pastry, comprising smooth sweet potato puree uplifting the traditional nian gao filling with a topping of shredded coconut and edible gold leaf for extra panache, as well as a traditional-leaning nian gao tart shaped simply like a lucky golden ingot.
7. Da Paolo Gastronomia: Nian Gao Croissant Rolls
Coming out of left-field for our list of twists on nian gao is Da Paolo Gastronomia’s Nian Gao croissant rolls. Yes, the pastry is exactly what it sounds like, featuring subtly sweet, sticky nian gao paste woven into the buttery, flaky croissants you’d expect from the Italian restaurant chain.
While it certainly won’t please nian gao purists, we suspect that it might be a good way to ease unfamiliar guests into the pleasures of old-school Chinese New Year desserts.