Neen Goh (Chinese New Year Cake)

Neen Goh

Photo 1: Neen Goh (Chinese New Year Cake or Nian Gao)

Because the Lunar New Year is the most important holiday on the calendar, Chinese markets are full of snack items to help people celebrate: melon seeds, candied fruit, cakes, candies, and even some Western items like Danish butter cookies and Ferrero Rocher chocolates. But the best Chinese New Year food is what your mom makes at home: Buddha’s Delight (a vegetable stew), sesame seed balls, turnip cake, and Neen Goh. Neen is Chinese for year. Goh (糕) means cake, but it’s also a homonym for high (高), so Neen Goh has a double meaning.

Chinese cakes are steamed or fried because traditional Chinese kitchens do not have ovens. Neen Goh is both steamed and fried! It is made with glutinous rice flour and Chinese brown sugar redolent with molasses. The steamed cake is decorated with toasted sesame seeds and red dates and is an attractive addition to a family’s New Year display.

The cake starts off supple and pull-y. After sitting several days at room temperature,  it becomes quite hard. While the cake can be eaten as is while its soft, it needs to be recooked by frying after it gets hard. Fried Neen Goh is crispy on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside. It can be eaten as a snack, or for breakfast.

As with any food, there are many regional variations, but one is usually partial to the version encountered during childhood. I’m almost always partial to whatever my mom use to make. But in the case of Neen Goh, I’ve come across a variation that may very well be even better than my mom’s! Last year a good friend treated me to Neen Goh with pork belly. There’s just a hint of pork belly, really. Just enough to transform the goh from great to exquisite. Feel free to leave it out. The goh will still taste great without it. One thing you shouldn’t leave out is the final frying step which transforms the goh to a whole other level.

A word about sugar: the amount of sugar has been reduced in this recipe to 4 bars (a little more than half a pound, or 225 g). It’s sweet enough for me, but if you like things sweeter, increase the sugar to as much as 7 bars (1 pound, or 454 g).

neen goh with pork belly

Photo 2: Pork belly slices on top of the thin layer of dough. The rest of the dough is added on top of the pork belly.

fried neen goh (nian gao)

Photo 3: Fried Neen Goh (nian gao) pieces.


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Neen Goh (Chinese New Year Cake)
Recipe type: Dessert
Cuisine: Chinese
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 8
  • 2 cups of water
  • 4-7 slabs of brown sugar (see Note 2)
  • 1 pound (454 g) of glutinous rice flour
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon toasted sesame seed
  • 1 oz (28 g) pork belly (optional)
  • 1 red date
  • Vegetable oil for frying
  1. Heat the water in a sauce pan until it boils. Reduce the heat to medium and add the sugar. Stir until the sugar has dissolved. Continue heating the mixture for 10 minutes being careful not to let it boil. Allow to cool for a few minutes.
  2. Add the flour to a large mixing bowl and form a hole in the middle. Pour the sugar water into hole. Mix for 2-4 minutes to completely blend the flour into the sugar mixture.
  3. Add the vegetable and sesame oils and continue mixing for another 2 minutes. The dough will be thick and pull-y.
  4. If using, cut the pork belly into slices about ⅛ to ¼ inches (0.5 cm) thick. The easiest way to get thin slices is to freeze the pork belly for 30 minutes or until it's firm, but not solid.
  5. Pour enough dough into a well-greased 7 inch x 2 inch cake pan to form a thin layer that completely covers the bottom. Lay the pork belly slices evenly over the surface of the dough (see Photo 2), then add the rest of the dough using a spatula to flatten the surface. Sprinkle sesame seeds evenly over the top.
  6. Place the pan into a steamer and steam for 3 hours. Check the water level every 30 minutes and replenish with boiling water as needed.
  7. Remove the pan from the steamer and cool for one hour before attempting to separate the cake from the pan. A rubber spatula is helpful for gently pushing the cake away from the pan.
  1. Do not cut the cake into wedges. Instead use a large kitchen knife to cut the cake in half. Then cut slices parallel to the diameter. Each slice should be ½ to 1 inch (2.5 cm) thick. Cut each slice into 3 to form smaller rectangular pieces.
  2. Heat a small skillet to medium and coat the bottom with vegetable oil. Fry the cake pieces for about 3 minutes on each side. The surface of the cake should be crispy and brown, while the interior is soft and pull-y.
Note 1: Equipment required for this recipe are a 7 inch by 2 inch straight-sided cake pan, rubber or plastic spatula, steamer, large kitchen knife, skillet.

Note 2: The amount of brown sugar can be varied from 4 to 7 bars according to personal preference. 7 bars is equivalent to 1 pound, or 454 g.

Note 3: The cake can be stored at room temperature for several days, in the fridge for a week or two, or frozen for several months.