Niangao, or sticky cake, is a typical traditional delight. With
Spring Festival only a few days away, now is the time to enjoy
these sticky, glutinous treats. According to various accounts, this
cake was given either as a bribe, or simply a means of ensuring the
Kitchen God's mouth was too full of cake to submit an unfavorable
Typical southern treat
During Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year, northerners in
China enjoy dumplings, or jiaozi, but in the south, niangao is the
order of the day.
Niangao, literally translated as Year Cake or Chinese New Year's
cake, is made of glutinous rice. It is, traditionally, the main
Chinese New Year cuisine; it is considered good luck to eat niangao
during this time. In Chinese, "gao" is a homonym for high. Niangaos
also called nianniangao, which is a homonym for "higher each year,"
symbolizing progress and promotion at work and in daily life and
improvement in life year by year. There are a variety of ways to
make niangao, but the main ingredient is always glutinous rice
pounded or ground into a paste, then mixed with other ingredients
and molded into shape, then cooked again to settle the mixture.
There are also a few variants of niangao, such as Shanghai
Niangao and Canton Niangao, but they are not commonly seen outside
Pleasing the heavens
The essence of Spring Festival is the celebration of the
beginning of new life. New Year's Celebrations in China are swathed
in the legends and traditions. The traditional Chinese New Year's
Celebration is a sticky cake offered to the Kitchen God. Spring
Festival commences with the offering of a sacrifice to the Kitchen
God, a deity sent from the heavens to each house to take charge of
family affairs and report on what it has done in the past year.
The Kitchen God's favorite food is a steamed cake. Offering a
Chinese New Year cake ensures that if he Kitchen God speaks ill of
the family in heaven, the gluey cake will hold his mouth shut. This
tradition seems to be an implicit pact between the Kitchen God and
his devotees. According to various accounts, this cake was given
either as a bribe, or simply a means of ensuring the Kitchen God's
mouth was too fullof cake to submit an unfavorable report.
Zao Jun, the Kitchen God
Many Chinese homes all over the Chinese mainland, Taiwan and
Southeast Asia have a picture of the Kitchen God Zao Jun hanging
above the stove. Zao Jun not only watches over the domestic affairs
of a family, but is a moral force in the lives of all family
members. It is Zao Jun who ascends to heaven every year during the
Chinese New Year to present a report to the Jade Emperor on each
family member's behavior
Customarily, family members try to "bribe" Zao Jun by smearing
his mouth with sugar or honey so that he may present a "sweetened"
version of their deeds or misdeeds as the case may be. Zao's ascent
to heaven is accomplished by burning his image: the smoke rising to
the heavens symbolically representing his journey to the Jade
Emperor. A new picture of him is then placed above the stove for
the coming year.
In the above representation of Zao Jun, we see him and his wife
flanked by two servants holding jars in which are stored the
rewards or punishments for the deeds or misdeeds that have occurred
during the year. Two other servants stand in the foreground: they
serve both Zao Jun and the Jade Emperor and are intermediaries
between the heavenly and earthly world.
The Taoist notion of yin and yang energies is symbolized by the
rooster and the dog who stand guard on either side of the a jar
filled with money and other riches the family hopes will come to
them in the coming year.
(Beijing Today February 4, 2008)