Chinese Stir-Fried Sticky Rice Cakes (aka “Nian Gao”)

Growing up in China, I was happy to see when my lunchbox contained a delicious savory dish full of sticky rice cakes, meat, and vegetables.

One may ask, “what are sticky rice cakes (or “nian gao” as they are called in China)?” Sticky rice cakes are a counterpart to our familiar wheat flour noodles, except that they’re made with glutinous rice flour (which are actually gluten-free). You can usually find them in the frozen section at Asian markets for around $3-4 per pound. These are a staple in Chinese and Korean cuisine, often eaten during celebrations of the lunar New Year to signal good luck and fortune in the upcoming year.

This February will officially mark the start of the Year of the Dog. According to the legend of the Zodiac, the Dog was 11th animal out of 12 to greet the Jade Emperor of Heaven at his birthday celebration (behind the Rooster and before the Pig).

Therefore, every 12th year from 2018, 2006, 1994, and so on are designated as “Years of the Dog.” If you were born in one of these years, Chinese tradition dictates that you should wear the color red throughout every Year of the Dog to attract more good luck! Read more about the Zodiac legend here.

One can see that traditional holidays in China are steeped in both rich stories and food, passed down through generations! Sticky rice cakes are eaten at celebrations of the Lunar New Year; however, it can be enjoyed anytime. I’m happy to share this recipe as it is one near and dear to my heart–I make it at least a few times every month.

Enjoy this dish as a full lunch or dinner meal, and don’t be afraid to put your own twist on it. Many of the ingredients can be substituted. Yes, even the rice cakes can be replaced with boiled wheat pasta or pre-cooked white/brown rice. Though the full complement of spices and seasonings (garlic, ginger, onion, soy/oyster sauce) will add that authentic fragrant aroma, they are all mostly optional (maybe except for the soy sauce). Finally, keep in mind that the meat and vegetable options are just that–options! I’ve had successful dishes using diced chicken instead of ground beef or other greens in place of bok choy.

The Recipe:

Makes 3-4 servings

Preparation and cook time: 30 minutes


  • 2 cups water
  • 2-3 cups frozen rice cakes (roughly 16 oz)
  • 1 cup frozen mixed vegetables (e.g. peas, carrots, corn)
  • 3 tbsp. vegetable oil
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and finely minced
  • 1 piece ginger (about 1” long), peeled and finely minced
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and thinly sliced
  • ½ lb. ground beef
  • 2 cups bok choy, thinly sliced (or Napa/regular cabbage)
  • 1 tbsp. soy sauce (or ½ tbsp. dark soy sauce)
  • 1 tbsp. oyster sauce (optional)
  • Pinch of green onions (optional)
  • Salt and pepper to taste


  1. In medium pot, bring the water, frozen rice cakes, and mixed vegetables to a boil over high heat, stirring occasionally.
  2. When it comes to a boil, remove from heat and set aside. Do not drain water yet. Heat oil in large wok (or large frying pan) on medium-high heat.
  3. Add garlic and ginger and stir until fragrant.
  4. Add onion and saute until translucent.
  5. Stir in ground beef and brown.
  6. Afterwards, add in the chopped bok choy and stir continuously until somewhat limp (about 1 minute).
  7. At this point, pour in the soy sauce and oyster sauce while continuing to stir.
  8. Immediately after, drain the water from the mixed vegetables and rice cakes and add those to the wok.
  9. Once all the ingredients have combined, add salt and black pepper to taste. Garnish with green onions if desired.
  10. Enjoy while hot!

Written by Stephanie Chen, a student in the Nutrition MS program at BU