Love the Chinese New Year nian gao? These are other sticky desserts from around the world

Freshly steamed, lightly fried or eaten in its original form, nian gao is hard not to love.
Freshly steamed, lightly fried or eaten in its original form, nian gao is hard not to love.PHOTO: MICHELLE TCHEA

GENEVA - While cleaning the house and going to the temple are Chinese New Year rituals kids may not be so enthusiastic about, there surely is no argument when it comes to feasting on auspicious food.

With travel plans still unstable after a year of the global pandemic, travel lovers can find solace in a table full of lucky food.

Even if you cannot hop over to Beijing to see fireworks above the Summer Palace or fly to Taiwan for dragon dances, you can still eat felicitous food to your heart's content.

While the reunion dinner menu differs from country to country, standouts include Buddha's Delight, a vegetarian dish with more than a handful of lucky ingredients such as bamboo shoots.

Steamed whole fish symbolises an abundant year ahead. And freshly steamed radish cakes relished morning, noon and night apparently allow one to achieve lofty ambitions in the coming year.

After last year, Chinese families from all corners of the world are doing what they can to ring in a luckier new year with good eats, including the sticky rice cake dessert, or nian gao.

Chinese desserts sometimes suffer from the reputation of being gloopy, texturally unattractive and even strong-smelling. But Chinese desserts are my weakness during Chinese New Year.

The sweet coconut aroma of Nonya kueh lapis, seen all around Singapore at this time of the year, reminds one of beach holidays.

I also love the bright red ang ku kueh filled with mung beans.

And I would happily elbow any family member for the last piece of nian gao.

Freshly steamed, lightly fried or eaten in its original form, nian gao is hard not to love.

Phonetically, nian gao sounds like "high year", which suggests a better year ahead.

But in these unusual times, I am also highlighting other sticky yet decadently sweet desserts you can put on your table.

1 China


Lotus root stuffed with sticky rice bathed in a gloriously sticky sugar syrup combines all the ingredients you need for a prosperous year ahead.

Eaten in China and Taiwan, the dessert is usually presented at fine-dining restaurants because of the labour needed to make this dish. Imagine carefully stuffing tiny grains of glutinous rice into the holes of a lotus root.

What can be more enjoyable than spinning the lazy susan after eating a crispy Peking duck at revered Restaurant 1948 in Beijing and feasting on a lotus root glistening in sugar? After all, the root vegetable symbolises abundance while its holes represent an open mind. So why stop at one? I don't.

2 Sweden/Germany


Sticky buns - curled-up bread rolls filled with caramelised sugar - are found all around the world, with many countries claiming the origin.

The German version is schnecken, which is best enjoyed before or after a visit to any brewery in Munich during Oktoberfest (my recommendation is Schmalznudel Cafe Frischhut).

Or perhaps you can indulge in kanelbullar in the Swedish capital, Stockholm, where intimate cafes such as Vete-Katten and Valhallabageriet are ideal destinations for anyone with a sweet tooth.

Best to have a strong pot of coffee to chase this sticky treat.

3 Uzbekistan


My late uncle loved a weekly trip to a Uzbekistan restaurant in my home city of Melbourne. I never quite understood his affection for the place that served steamed buns and charcoal-fired meat skewers, until now.

The Central Asian country is not known for its cuisine, but shares many values similar to those in Chinese communities.

Sumulak is a dish made for the Uzbek new year and is similar in texture to the nian gao, but in porridge form.

I have an Uzbek friend from Tashkent, where sumulak originates, who tells me that the sweet porridge, prepared over 24 hours, symbolises unity, togetherness and good luck.

4 Taiwan


Pineapples symbolise good fortune and prosperity because of its appearance - wonderfully regal when standing upright on a Chinese dinner table. It also alludes to good fortune, with the Hokkien dialect for pineapple being "ong lai", which loosely means "good fortune coming your way".

Pineapples are widely celebrated in Taiwan in the form of the pineapple cake. I remember having pineapple cakes only on special occasions as a child, enjoying the buttery pastry that encased pineapple filling.

A handful of great bakeries make authentic pineapple cakes with native pineapples grown in the Bagua Mountain in Nantou, including Sunny Hills Bakery. LeeChi and ChiaTe also do respectable versions and can be found around the world.

5 Indonesia/Malaysia


Locals eat the deliciously sweet bubur pulut hitam for breakfast in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Made with coconut milk, sugar and black glutinous rice, this porridge is cooked slowly until the rice is sticky and luscious.

If you find yourself in Lombok, visit Anggrek Putih Eco Resort for a three-hour cooking class, which includes making this Javanese speciality, as well as other traditional Lombok food spiked with lots of chilli.

6 Greece


Bolo rei in Portugal, King's Cake in Spain and vasilopita in Greece are all cakes which are eaten during New Year celebrations in Europe to bring good luck and prosperity to those who savour these treats.

At midnight on New Year's Eve, Greek families cut the vasilopita to bless the house for the new year ahead. The lucky person who finds a hidden coin in the cake is said to receive extra good luck and usually receives money as a reward.

My favourite find in the capital city of Athens is Varsos in Kifisia, which also makes another sticky dessert, baklava.

•Based in Geneva, Australia-born Michelle Tchea is the author of Chefs Collective and writes on food, wine and travel.