ni·an gao [nyan-gow]:
origin: [722–481 BC] Chinese; "nin gou" in Cantonese; similar sound= "year high" (年高), symbolizing higher income/position/success/health.
A cake made of glutinous rice flour, wheat starch, salt, water and sugar -- prepared for the new year. People eat them in belief that it will increase luck & success. A tradition dating back 3,000 years, the cakes started as a food created as an offering in ritual ceremonies, eventually turning into a Spring Festival food. [recipe] + [video]
The desserts have a very firm appearance to a Westerner and there is a historical reason for this, as they are made in honor of Prime Minister Wu Zixu, who remarked that a large wall (recently built) would not be enough to protect people in times of war, to avoid sloth and idleness -- he told people it was important to also dig a hole underneath the walls. After Wu Zixu passed away, his words proved true as the people suffered during another invasion, but when they recalled the Prime Minister's earlier proclamation and dug into the ground...they found "special bricks" which were made of gluttonous rice, put there as a secret gift, and providing a much needed source of food, and therefore they did not starve to death.
These new year cakes represent those "bricks".
Cakes can also be cut into pieces, dipped in egg or sugar, and pan-fried.
origin: [1400s] first recorded in 1835; Persian, zayzafun; Greek, zizyphon; Latin, zizyphum= "date-like fruit".
As a Westerner, you most likely know this as colorful & gummy candy that is frequently sold at movie theaters (pronounced as joo-joobs or joo-joo-bees); it dates back to 1920 and did you know the original flavors were lilac, violet, rose, spearmint and lemon?
However, the word jujube actually describes a real plant, (genus: Ziziphus) Jujuba, the sweet fruit is known & prized throughout Asia and The Middle East as the red date. Jujubes are an ancient and pleasantly sweet fruit that are eaten fresh, dried, boiled, and baked (such as in nian gao); over 400 varieties have been cultivated. The entire body from skin to pit is red, an auspicious color in Chinese color, and the flavor is sweet-tart and not unlike an apple.
Medicinally, the same plant contains important properties that assist with inflammation, pain, and circulatory issues; it's commonly used to assist with ulcers, pregnancy, and eczema. They've even been shown to slow the growth of malignant leukemia cells! The fruits only contain trace elements individually, but they make up for that in variety of nutrients: magnesium, potassium, copper, niacin, calcium, manganese, phosphorus, and iron. Jujubes contain 20x more vitamin C than any other citrus, making them ideal for boosting the immune system & fighting infections.
Symbolically, in Taoism, the fruit of this tree is associated with pure nourishment & immortality; also representing wealth, prosperity, fertility. In the described paradise of Islam, jujubes are a symbol of the farthest limits of time & space. In Israel, the plant is also known as the "Christ Thorn" (or "Christ tree", "Holy Tree") for the sharp branches that can accompany the sweet fruits. Writings about the plant date back as far as the 4th century B.C., found in ancient Greek texts, by botanist Theophrastus.
Isn't it amazing how things can be interrelated?! With language being an amazing set of foot prints tracing those invisible connections!