The Traditional and the Modern – NBC New York

Every year after the Lunar New Year, without exception, Kat Lieu’s mother made her steamed nian gao, a sweet rice or mochi cake. It was a tasty tradition to have desserts for breakfast.

The Seattle-based author of Modern Asian Baking at Home cookbook and founder of online group Subtle Asian Baking is changing things up for her 9-year-old son. On the first morning of the new year, he gets mochi waffles with light green panda.

“I’m going to make the waffles again this year,” said Lieu, who is half Chinese and half Vietnamese. “I’ll also do the muffled nian gao and stuff like that and try to make him appreciate it more, too.”

Unlike Thanksgiving, when cake is a staple of many households, Lunar New Year desserts and confections are as diverse as the Asian diasporas around the world who celebrate it.

Families from China to the US to Vietnam celebrate the New Year on Sunday with the usual customs, such as lavish dinners and red envelopes with money for children. There will be common sweet snacks like nian gao. But in this age of social media, food literacy, and cultural pride, younger generations of Asians are also becoming increasingly inspired to create whimsical and creative dessert courses — from black sesame financiers to peanut butter miso cookies.

In Beijing, residents flock to the flagship store of Daoxiangcun, one of the city’s most well-known bakeries, to buy New Year-themed dessert gift boxes, in which some of the baked goods are shaped like a rabbit, the Chinese animal of the coming year zodiac.

People queued for hours outside the store on Saturday to buy baked goods, according to an employee. Even at a less popular branch half a block away, customers still had to wait 40 minutes.

For Lexi Li, it was about bringing loved ones a little something, even though it meant waiting in line for seven hours in 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 of Taiyuan. in the central Chinese province of Shanxi.

Known for its diverse food culture, China offers a variety of Lunar New Year desserts, usually based on rice or flour. These include tang yuan, which are mochi-like rice balls with black sesame or peanut paste in soup, as well as sesame balls, almond biscuits, candied lotus seeds, and fat goh — steamed cakes, also known as prosperity cakes.

Nian Gao remains one of the most popular options. Its main ingredient is glutinous rice flour, along with other things like taro, dates, jujube, and red bean paste, depending on the variety. His name is a homonym for “higher year” in Chinese, meaning a more prosperous year and expressing a desire for children to grow up.

The well-preserved tradition plays an important role in passing on Chinese culture because it keeps alive a food culture that honors grains and reminds people how festivals are celebrated that date back to the seventh century, according to Siu Yan Ho, a Hong Kong-based expert on Chinese food culture.

“Food is memory, and that memory is associated with festivals,” Siu said.

In Vietnam, which celebrates the Year of the Cat, sweets also differ by region. Vietnamese eat nian gao, what they call banh. 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 delicacies include che kho dau xanh – a mung bean pudding made with coconut milk and sugar – and banh tet chuoi, a sticky rice cake with bananas.

“The Lunar New Year is a three-day visit to family, friends and teachers,” says Linh Trinh, a Vietnamese food historian who is doing her doctorate in the subject at the University of Michigan. “So everyone has to keep a lot of snacks in their house for people to come visit and have tea. It becomes the pride of the household to serve their traditional snacks.”

More and more US companies are finding a sweet spot in incorporating Lunar New Year elements. Cupcake chain Sprinkles sells red velvet cupcakes with almond cookie crust and almond cream cheese frosting in partnership with non-profit pan-Asian cultural funder Gold House. At Disney California Adventure Park, guests can order milk tea cheesecake with taro mousse.

Judging by the more than 150,000 members of the Subtle Asian Baking Facebook group, many Asians are more interested in showing off something they made for vacation than they bought anything. The community has come a long way since Lieu was founded in 2020. For the third time, a virtual Lunar New Year bake-off was held on Facebook and Instagram, with members sharing photos of stunning macarons, chiffon cakes and other pastries.

“You are innovative. You bring an appreciation for all these amazing ingredients,” Lieu said. “And then you make your own traditions out of it, which is amazing.”

Kelson Herman of San Francisco made a sourdough ball for the Lunar New Year with an illustration of Miffy, a bunny girl from a popular Dutch children’s book series. The 44-year-old, who is already a keen baker, found inspiration by seeing what other people were doing online.

“I see a lot of boundaries being pushed, people trying not only to outdo each other, but to be more creative,” Herman said. “I feel like it’s always about flavors that evoke certain family memories. … It could be things that just evoke conversation and family.”

In Queens, New York, Karen Chin made a two-tiered cake that was glazed with coconut buttercream and topped with a white chocolate bunny. One layer was vanilla with red bean paste. The other was spice cake with cardamom and mango curd. It’s a far cry from the fat goh her grandmother makes.

“I told my grandma I’m going to bake a cake. And she’s like, ‘Don’t make it too complicated,'” Chin said, laughing.

However, Chin’s creativity produced some special family moments.

“I was so touched because the last time she came and ate something, she said, ‘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 making pastries “cute” for special occasions. During the pandemic, she discovered a passion for combining baking with her love of Asian pop culture. Previous 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 because her two school-age daughters grew up in Hong Kong, they learned the importance of the Lunar New Year, including food. But she also likes to throw in something else, such as: B. Black sesame financiers and salted egg yolk biscuits.

“For me, a Lunar New Year dessert is something made with Asian elements in a nod to traditionally made goods during that period,” 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 as they symbolize a sweet life.”


Caroline Chen, Associated Press news assistant in Beijing, contributed to this report.