Every Lunar New Year without fail, Kat Lieu’s mother would make her steamed nian gao, which is a sweet rice — or mochi — cake. It was a tasty tradition of having dessert for breakfast.
The Seattle-based author of the “Modern Asian Baking at Home” cookbook and founder of the Subtle Asian Baking online group switches things up for her 9-year-old son. He gets mochi waffles made with bright green pandan the first morning of the new year.
“This year again I’m going to make the waffles,” said Lieu, who is half Chinese and half Vietnamese. “I’m also going to make the steamed nian gao and things like that, and try to have him appreciate it more, too.”
Unlike Thanksgiving, when pie is a given at many households, desserts and confections at Lunar New Year are as varied as the Asian diasporas around the world that celebrate it.
Families from China to the U.S. to Vietnam will mark the new year on Sunday with the usual customs such as elaborate dinners and red envelopes with money for children. There will be customary sweet snacks like nian gao. But in this age of social media, food savviness and cultural pride, younger generations of Asians also are getting more inspired to have dessert courses that are whimsical and creative — from black sesame financiers to peanut butter miso cookies.
In Beijing, residents have been flocking to the flagship store of Daoxiangcun, one of the city’s best-known bakeries, for new year-themed dessert gift boxes in which some of the pastries were shaped like a rabbit, the animal of the upcoming year’s Chinese zodiac.
On Saturday, people stood in line outside the store for hours for the chance to buy baked goods, according to a staffer. Even at a less popular branch half a block away, customers still had to wait 40 minutes.
For Lexi Li, it was about bringing a little something to loved ones even though it meant waiting in the line for seven hours in sub-freezing temperatures.
“I don’t really like desserts and pastries, but I just want to bring something home as a gift,” said the 30-year-old, who walked out with a stack of eight boxes for friends and family in her hometown Taiyuan, in central China’s Shanxi province.
Known for its diverse food culture, China offers a variety of Lunar New Year desserts that are usually rice-based or flour-based. They include tang yuan, which are mochi-esque rice balls with black sesame or peanut paste in soup, as well as sesame balls, almond cookies, candied lotus seeds and fat goh — steamed cakes also known as prosperity cakes.
Nian gao remains one of the most popular options. Its key ingredient is glutinous rice flour, along with other things such as taro, dates, jujube and red bean paste, depending on the variety. Its name is a homonym for “higher year” in Chinese, meaning a more prosperous year ahead and expressing wishes for children to grow taller.
The well-preserved tradition plays a vital role in passing on Chinese culture because it keeps alive a food culture honoring grains and reminding people of how festivals are celebrated going back to the seventh century, according to Siu Yan Ho, a Hong Kong-based expert in Chinese food culture.
“Food is memory, and this memory is connected with festivals,” Siu said.
In Vietnam, which is celebrating the Year of the Cat, sweets also differ by region. Vietnamese people eat nian gao, which they call banh to. They also eat che kho gao nep, a pudding made with sticky rice and a mixture of water, ginger and either sugar or molasses. Other delectables include che kho dau xanh — a mung bean pudding made with coconut milk and sugar — and banh tet chuoi, a glutinous rice cake with bananas.
“On Lunar New Year, for three days you go visit family, friends and teachers,” said Linh Trinh, a Vietnamese food historian who is getting a PhD in the subject at the University of Michigan. “So everybody has to store a lot of snacks in their house for people to come visit and have tea. It becomes like the pride of the household to serve their traditional snacks.”
More U.S. companies are finding a sweet spot in incorporating Lunar New Year elements. Cupcake chain Sprinkles, in collaboration with the pan-Asian cultural support nonprofit Gold House, is selling red velvet cupcakes with an almond cookie crust and almond cream cheese frosting. At Disney California Adventure Park, guests can order milk tea cheesecake with taro mousse.
Judging by the 150,000-plus membership of the Subtle Asian Baking Facebook group, a lot of Asians are more about showing off something they made for the holiday rather than bought. The community has come a long way from when Lieu started it in 2020. For the third year, there has been a virtual Lunar New Year bake-off on Facebook and Instagram where members share photos of stunning macarons, chiffon cakes and other pastries.
“You’re innovating. You’re bringing appreciation to all these amazing ingredients,” Lieu said. “And then you’re you’re making it your own traditions, which is amazing.”
Kelson Herman, of San Francisco, crafted a sourdough boule with an illustration of Miffy, a girl bunny from a popular Dutch children’s book series, for the Lunar New Year. Already an avid baker, the 44-year-old got inspired by seeing online what other people were doing.
“I see a lot of boundaries being pushed, people trying to not just one-up each other but be more creative,” Herman said. “I feel like it always comes down to flavors that bring back kind of familial memories. … It could be things that just evoke conversation and family.”
In Queens, New York, Karen Chin made a two-tier cake frosted in coconut buttercream topped with a white chocolate rabbit. One layer was vanilla with red bean paste. The other was spiced cake with cardamom and mango curd. It’s a far cry from the fat goh her grandmother makes.
“I told my grandma that I was going to make a cake. And she’s like, ‘Don’t make it too complicated,’” Chin said, chuckling.
Yet, Chin’s creativity yielded some special family moments.
“I was so touched because last time when she came and she ate something, she’s like ‘You make good food.’ I was like, ‘Wow, that’s the first time she complimented me,'” Chin said.
Sue Ng, who was born and raised in Canada but now lives in Hong Kong, loves to “cute-ify” pastries for special occasions. During the pandemic, she found a passion for combining baking and her love of Asian pop culture. Past Lunar New Year creations included a rolled cake that looked like a White Rabbit Creamy Candy, a Chinese brand as iconic as the Hershey bar.
Ng said that because her two school-age daughters have grown up in Hong Kong, they’ve learned the importance of the Lunar New Year, including the food. But she also likes to throw in something different, such as black sesame financiers and salted egg yolk cookies.
“A Lunar New Year dessert to me is something made using Asian elements with reference to traditionally-made goods during this time,” Ng said in an email. “Now we can be creative and make something like nian gao-filled cookies and the ideas are limitless! Sweet treats are a must during this time because it symbolizes a sweet life.”