There’s a joy in staying in China’s big cities over the upcoming Lunar New Year (春节, chūnjié). As people start the “great migration” back to their ancestral hometowns to enjoy the annual reunion dinner (团圆饭, tuányuánfàn, or 年夜饭, nián yè fàn) with their family, Shanghai becomes a ghost town.
Nearly every shop and restaurant closes up for at least a week (and sometimes more like three), as employees travel back to inland provinces like Anhui and Henan for a well-earned break and the chance to eat traditional, home-cooked meals with relatives. So long as you have a well-stocked fridge, the New Year is a peaceful time to explore the empty streets.
As for what to stock in your fridge, there are plenty of symbolic foods to choose from. One of the joys of eating traditionally around Chinese holidays is that the dishes pull double duty and provide diners with delicious symbolism. Due to Chinese language structure and the abundance and importance of homophones as a result of the tonalities, there are many opportunities for wordplay and symbolism. For example, whole fish (鱼, yú) with the head and tail intact are used to symbolize abundance (余, yú) and to complete the phrase “There will be abundance [fish] every year” (年年有余／鱼, niánniányǒuyú).
Another popular dish in Shanghai has a similar special meaning around the holiday: Steamed glutinous rice flour cakes (年糕, niángāo) are thought to bring eaters a more prosperous year (年高, niángāo). Both the dish and the phrase are identical in pronunciation, so eating niangao is imbued with the symbolism of raising oneself taller in the coming year (年年高升 niánnián gāoshēng) to achieve new heights in personal and business endeavors. Another legend suggests that the dish serves an important function around the holiday. Instead of cookies for Santa, the Kitchen God is given offerings of niangao – it’s believed that with a mouth full of the sticky cakes, he won’t be able to talk smack about the family in front of the Jade Emperor, who decides which families will be blessed with wealth and abundance.
The beauty of the dish is that almost every truly local (本帮, běn bāng) Shanghai restaurant will make their own version – the cakes can be prepared in many different ways. Below, we’ve highlighted three of our favorite niangao dishes, because you never know which one the Kitchen God is going to like the most, do you?
Jiu Kuan Ningbo
Ningbo is a city that is part of the Jiangnan region (known in English as Lower Yangtze), an area that encompasses Shanghai, southern Anhui, Jiangsu province and Zhejiang province (where Ningbo is located on the East China Sea). Sometimes this area is known as the Land of Fish and Rice (Fuchsia Dunlop used it as the name for her 2016 cookbook focused on the region) because it is one of the most productive agricultural areas of China, thanks to the Yangtze, its tributaries and the sea. Records show that rice was grown near Ningbo in Neolithic times (5,000 BCE); nowadays they eat it not only by the bowl, but also by the cake.
At this shop, niangao is fried with 荠菜 (jìcài – shepherd’s purse) and pork. Shepherd’s purse is considered a weed in other parts of the world (in fact it’s the globe’s second most common weed), but is a delicious green popular in the Jiangnan region, as well as in Japan and Korea. The flavors of the Jiangnan region are typified by 本味 or essential, true flavors that are considered “pure” and “light,” and sometimes categorized as sweet – and these delicious rice cakes are just that.
Serving up local dishes since 1959, the unassuming shop packs the crowds in for all the right reasons: authenticity, spirited waitstaff and a focus on food above all else. The soup dumplings are a must (小笼包), but the pork rib stir-fried with rice cakes (排骨年糕 Páigǔ niángāo) is a highlight as well. Served cafeteria style on a tray-plate, this Shanghainese specialty dish includes long oblong slices of the rice cakes alongside a deep-fried breaded pork chop (a Shanghainese specialty that harks back to the desire of Austrian and German expats for schnitzel in the early 20th century). There’s also a slop of secret gravy on the tray, a strangely addictive combination that they won’t divulge the particulars of, but tastes like sugar, tomato sauce, chile oil and cornstarch made a baby, and you cannot help but dip your rice cakes and pork chop over and over again.
Shanghai Hongkou Sticky Rice Cakes
Rice cakes are not reserved just for savory dishes – this takeaway specialty niangao shop does different niangao desserts. Originating in one of the city’s northern districts, the brand now makes these sweets in a central factory and ships them out to branches around town. If you’re headed to an annual reunion dinner, you’d do well to stop in here and get the ultimate Chinese New Year dish: a glutinous rice cake molded into the shape of a fish with red packaging. It literally ticks all the lucky boxes! Keep in mind that while it’s precooked, it’s designed to be steamed or boiled before serving.
For other rice cake desserts, they also wrap freshly cooked cakes around sweet black sesame paste and call them rice cake balls (年糕团 niángāo tuán) for a takeaway treat. Also available is a classic ready-to-eat Shanghainese dessert called 桂花条头糕 (guìhuā tiáo tóu gāo): sticky rice cakes perfumed with teeny Osmanthus flowers, wrapped around sweetened red bean paste. Or you can order more of their packaged desserts, like a pure sweetened block of sticky rice (糖年糕 táng niángāo).