There are many traditions associated with the Chinese New Years season or Spring Festival. However, one important tradition takes place before the old year has come to a close, serving nian gao (sticky cake) to the Kitchen God.
According to legend, one week before the Spring Festival begins, the Kitchen God returns to heaven to report on a family's behavior during the previous year. A negative report by the Kitchen God means a family will suffer from bad luck during the year to come.
Luckily, he can be put into a good mood with nian gao.
Origins of the Kitchen God
In The Kitchen's God Wife, Amy Tan describes the legend of how the Kitchen God came to exist. Basically, a beggar named Zhang leaped into a fireplace to escape being seen by his former wife. His embarrassment came not from his reduced circumstances, but from the way he had mistreated her. His wife tried vainly to put out the fire but was ultimately forced to watch her former husband's ashes fly up the chimney. Upon hearing the story, the Jade Emperor decided to reward the man for admitting to his wrongdoings by making him Kitchen God, charged with watching over everyone's behavior.
Not surprisingly given his important task, images of the Kitchen God portray him as a rather imposing figure. The narrator in The Kitchen God's Wife describes one given to her by her mother: "The man is rather large and is seated in regal splendor, holding a quill in one hand, a tablet in the other.
He has two long whiskers, shaped like smooth, tapered black whips."
Feeding Sticky Cake to the Kitchen God - Nian Gao
In order to ensure a favorable report from the Kitchen God, the custom evolved of feeding him Sticky Cake. According to different accounts, this was either a bribe or simply a means of ensuring the Kitchen God's mouth was too full of cake to pass on an unfavorable report.
Nian Gao and Sticky Cake Recipes
Sticky Cake is steamed (as are most Chinese cakes) and made with glutinous rice flour and dried fruit. Traditionally, Sticky Cake is made with peen tong, a traditional Chinese brown candy that is available at Asian markets. The glutinous rice flour can also be found at Asian markets.
Sticky Cake Recipe: a recipe for a traditional steamed fruit cake, nian gao. This recipe can be made with either peen tong or brown sugar. It doesn't contain butter or eggs. Chinese dates are used, but other dates or dried fruit can be substituted. A wok is prepared for steaming and the dough, fruit, and nuts are placed in a cake pan. The cake pan is then steamed in the wok. The cake can be served hot, cut into thin slices.
Baked Chinese New Year Cake (Nian Gao): This makes a more cake-like cake, using butter, eggs, and milk and red azuki beans. It's baked rather than steamed and doesn't have any fruit.