Niangao – Chinese New Year Cake

Niangao is a Chinese dessert, typically eating during New Year, but enjoyed all year round

Niangao is a popular Chinese dessert. It was originally used as an offering in ritual ceremonies before it gradually became a Spring Festival food. Niangao is a prepared from glutinous rice. While it can be eaten all year round, traditionally it is most popular during Chinese New Year. It is also traditionally eaten during the Duanwu Festival. It is considered good luck to eat niangao during this time, because niangao is a homonym for “higher year.” The Chinese word nian meaning “sticky”, is identical in sound to nian, meaning “year”, and the word gao, meaning “cake” is identical in sound to gao, meaning “high”. As such, eating niangao has the symbolism of raising oneself taller in each coming year (niannian gaosheng). It is also known as a rice cake. This sticky sweet snack was believed to be an offering to the Kitchen God, with the aim that his mouth will be stuck with the sticky cake, so that he can’t badmouth the human family in front of the Jade Emperor.

Niangao History

Niangao has a history of at least 1,000 years. Early in the Liao Dynasty (907–1125) people in Beijing had the custom of eating New Year cakes on the first day of the first month of the lunar year. During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) and the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), Niangao had already become a common folk snack, and remains so today.

The Niangao Legend

Niangao has a legend about its supposed Suzhou origin, around 2,500 years ago. In the Spring and Autumn Period (722 – 481 BC) of ancient China, the whole country was divided into different small kingdoms and people suffered from the chaos of war. At that time, Suzhou was the capital of the Wu Kingdom. Strong walls were built to protect Wu from attacks, and the king held a banquet to celebrate their completion. All of the people ceased to worry about the war, except for the Prime Minister Wu Zixu. He told his entourage: “War should not be viewed lightly. The strong wall is a good protection indeed, but if the enemy state besieges our kingdom, the wall is also a hard barrier to ourselves. In case things really go badly, remember to dig a hole under the wall.” Many years later, after Wu Zixu passed away, and his words came true. Many people starved to death during the siege. The soldiers did what Wu Zixu told them before and found that the wall under the earth was built with special bricks made from glutinous rice flour. This food saved many people from starvation. These bricks were the supposedly original niangao. After that, people made niangao every year to commemorate Wu Zixu. As time passed, niangao became what is now known as Chinese New Year cake.

How niangao is made

Niangao is usually made from glutinous rice flour, wheat starch, salt, water, and sugar. It is delicious when steamed, fried, or even eaten cold. Many people in rural areas still observe this ancient method to make New Year cakes:

  • First, put some steamed rice into a big stone container.
  • Second, beat it with a long-handled wooden hammer until the rice becomes a glutinous paste.
  • Then take the paste out, cut it into small pieces (about 150 grams per piece).
  • Lastly, roll them out into 3-centimeter-wide strips.

Niangao Types

Niangao

Within the extensive land of China, customs vary in different areas: white rice cake is eaten in north China, yellow rice cake in the northern frontier of China, water-mill-made rice cake in southern China, and hongguigao (red turtle cake) in Taiwan. The flavors of niangao can be divided into two major kinds:

  • Sweet rice cake is usually made in northern China by steaming or frying.
  • In southern China, niangao can be sweet or savory, cooked by steaming, sliced-frying, or even cooking in soup.

Beijing New Year Cake

In Beijing, New Year cakes are on sale in many snack shops, like Qianmen Snack Street and Jiumen Snack Street, especially during the Spring Festival.

Guangdong Niangao and Hainan Niangao

Guangdong niangao is often like a soft, sticky dough, made from glutinous rice flour, peanut oil, and shelled melon seeds, and wrapped in bamboo leaves. Rice cakes made in this way taste soft and sweet. Hainan New Year cakes are made before the Spring Festival as gifts to share, with glutinous rice flour, sugar, sesame seeds, red dates and water as the main ingredients. There are some special ways to enjoy Hainan niangao, such as frying, baking, and boiling.

Jiangsu Niangao and Zhejiang Niangao

New Year cake New Year cake wrapped in bamboo leaves in southern China. In Jiangsu and Zhejiang (the Yangtze Delta area) choices of New Year cake fillings include sweet-scented osmanthus flower sugar, lard oil, and sweet red beans. In Zhejiang, the most common ‘year cake’  is Ningbo Niangao, made from rice which has been crushed in a water mill.

Industrial production

To survive in the present day, niangao needed to adapt itself for production on an industrial scale. Fortunately, unlike many other modernised versions of traditional Chinese foods, factory-produced niangao can stick to the basic formulation. I will take a major producer, Huangshan Tianfeng Foods Co., that produces niangao with a wide range of flavours, under the Lucky Years (Xiyunnian) brand as an example. The picture above shows the company’s generic niangao, with the basic ingredients:

Rice, water, salt.

Other flavours include:

Niangao with purple rice (basic ingredients + purple rice powder)

Niangao with pumpkin (basic ingredients + pumpkin powder)

Niangao with crispy skin (basic ingredients + sodium dehydro-acetate)

There are many more, but I would like to end with the most innovative one: cheese niangao (basic ingredients + cheese).

I have not yet heard or read any reaction about this combination of a Western ingredient with a traditional Chinese food, but I will look for it and add it hear as soon as I know.

Eurasia Consult has detailed information about Chinese manufacturers of niangao.

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975.

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Cheese in China – a gargantuan challenge

Most Chinese believe that cheese smells like a kitchen rag, but there definitely is a future for cheese in China.

First of all, you should know that most of the Chinese do not like cheese, or at least the typical cheeses Westerners eat every day. Indeed they think it smells horrible and find hard cheeses such as Gruyere or Emmental outright disgusting.

However, more and more Chinese people would like to try new things and to taste imported products, as is attested in many of the posts in this blog. This also includes cheese, especially in first-tier cities such as Shanghai, Beijing or Guangzhou. However, almost all cheese consumed by Chinese is processed, as this removes some of the most problematic properties (texture and odour).

CnProcCheese

Government support

Chinese Vice Agriculture Minister Yu Kangzhen stated on Dec. 13, 2017, speaking at an event to encourage cheese consumption in schools, that efforts should be made to develop dry dairy products like cheese to improve dairy product structure and boost the dairy industry. Chang Yi, chairman of Beijing Sanyuan Food (see below), said at the event that China’s cheese consumption could grow by more than tenfold in future, and that he expected the cheese industry to maintain annual growth of 20% in the next five years.

Imports

While domestic production is growing, most cheese consumed in China is imported. Chinese cheese imports now approach 100,000 mt p.a.

Region share (%)
New Zealand 42.2
Australia 27.2
USA 18.6

The old world is obviously lagging behind, which is again a result of the Chinese dislike of unprocessed cheese.

Mozzarella is a major item in the list of imported cheese. Fonterra has recently opened a cheese plant in Australia to better supply the Chinese pizza market. According to a Fonterra spokesperson, already half of the Chinese pizzas are topped with mozzarella from Fonterra.

China is lowering its cheese tariffs from 12% to 8%, effective from December 1, 2017. This will certainly boost the sales of imported cheese.

Distribution Channels

93% in supermarkets and hypermarkets
4.8% in small independent grocers
1.9% in other food retailers
0.3% small outlets like hotels and upscale restaurants targeting expatriates

The supermarket is the no.1 distribution channel, because it is absolutely necessary to maintain the cold chain for cheese. Many small grocers cannot provide this quality service. With the development of the Internet and new ways of consumption, it is now possible to buy your cheese online.

Imports are still rising significantly. China has imported 16,446.9 mt of cheese during the first 4 months of 2017; up 41.25%.

Demand

Demand for cheese is driven by two factors: Chinese consumers looking for high quality dairy products and safe products prefer major western brands. Lifestyles are moving towards European standards of consumption.

The tastes of Chinese regarding cheese will develop gradually. Traditionally Chinese food is served with several dishes. And unlike us, Chinese don’t eat cold meal. However, pizza has made extremely popular in China after the arrival of Pizza Hut in the Middle Kingdom. Its success has inspired many Chinese entrepreneurs to venture into Italian restaurants, and cheese is an inalienable ingredient of Italian cuisine.

PizzaHutChina

Main brands

The site Manufacturing News has published the following list of China’s top 10 cheese brands of 2015

1 Yili
2 Bright
3 Suki
4 Milkana
5 Anchor
6 Mengniu
7 La Vache qui Rit
8 Sanyuan
9 Arla
10 Tala Eji

Half of these are indeed domestic companies, but most of them import bulk cheese and further process it into processed cheese in various shapes and flavours.

The oldest domestic cheese producer is Sanyuan (Beijing). It imported a Danish cheese production line in 1985, mainly to service the foreign diplomatic community in the Chinese capital. Sanyuan still produces this cheese under the Beijing Cheese (Beijing Ganlao) brand. It now has a capacity of 10,000 mt p.a.

Strikingly, most domestic companies that actually produce cheese in China are small, often privately owned, enterprises. There is Qishi (Inner Mongolia), China’s first producer of Mozzarella, but the most interesting case is no doubt Le Fromager de Pekin, a company set up by a Chinese, Liu Yang, who learned making cheese in France. Liu spent 7 years in France studying the language, business administration and cheese making. Upon his return to China in 2007, he stumbled through careers in translation and IT sales before opening Le Fromager de Pekin, which sells about 5300 pounds of cheese a year. Although Liu’s mission is to promote cheese to fellow Chinese, almost all of his clients are expatriates living in Beijing. Still, he’s convinced that will change. Watch this video report about his activities.

Case study: Golden Valley: Gouda as only a Dutchman can make it

When Marc de Ruiter’s Yellow Valley business opened up in 2004, it was the first fair trade Gouda cheese producer in China. Known by almost half the expat population in Beijing. Here is a video impression from 2009.

Yellow Valley is located near Taiyuan (Shanxi). It is a small production facility on the premises of a dairy farm. Here, Marc de Ruiter, a Dutch agriculturist, produces his original Gouda cheeses. He is supported by two full-time employees – one cheese maker and one who handles marketing and sales. Two part-time employees take care of the online sales activities via China’s e-commerce platforms. The small Gouda cheese making business grew more successful over the years and the Yellow Valley products were widely known in China’s largest cities. After China was hit by the melamine milk scandal, Yellow Valley had to close down, like many small dairy-processing businesses.

YV

After the close-down from 2011 to 2015, Marc found a way to restart. “Producing ‘farmhouse based cheese’ was the loophole I needed. It requires a lot less licences and permits. The cheese can only be sold directly and online – not in stores.” The Yellow Valley ‘new style’ offers a wide range of traditional and special products, like the original Cheese, the Aged, Herbs de Provence and Cumin varieties and even with local cheese favourites with onions and garlic. There is even a spicy variation red Currently, nearly 90% of its sales go through WeChat, Weidian and Taobao channels.

After the reopening of Yellow Valley in mid-2015, Marc aims to increase production. The company is expanding its facilities to 65+ square metres of production space, a ripening chamber and an exhibition space.

What is missing?

So the Chinese are surely developing a taste for cheese, but what would it take to bring this market to maturation? One problem is that cheese is hard to integrate in Chinese cuisine. You can try to design a recipe for cheese-filled dumplings, but this may make them taste more like an Italian dish than a Chinese snack. The same would happen, if you would sprinkle grated cheese over a bowl of Sichuan-style dandan noodles. It may actually be tasty, but I wonder if it would ever become a hit. One solution could be to do tests with adding molds like those used to produce furu (fermented bean curd) to cheese and develop an indigenous moldy cheese. Huangshan Tianfeng Foods Co. produces a version of the traditional Chinese rice cake niangao flavoured with cheese.

Another problem is that the little natural cheese that is actually produced on Chinese soil is not linked to the local food tradition, the local terroir. When I first lived in China in the 1970s, we could buy cheese from Heilongjiang province (the home region of Mr Liu Yang), close to the Russian border. That was real natural cheese. However, production seems to have halted; pushed from the market by imported cheese and locally produced processed cheese. An idea for Mr Liu Yang would be to promote his Beijing-produced cheese as the ideal companion of Beijing’s famous baijiu (distilled liquor): Erguotou; a beautiful marriage between the old and new local tradition.

Cheese has set a firm foot on Chinese soil and it certainly there to stay and to grow.

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975.