Lunar New Year – which this year falls on January 25 – comes with a myriad of traditions, customs and auspicious acts, and food is no exception . Two dishes that are said to bring luck and prosperity to the eater are turnip cake and nian gao; the latter is also associated with tales of people-eating monsters and deity bribery. Turnip cake For readers not familiar with this beloved staple, the first thing to clear up is that the “cake” is not made from turnip; it is made from white radish, known to many by its Japanese name, daikon. 6 traditional Japanese foods vegans can enjoy in Osaka The dish’s English name is a simple case of lost in translation, according to Lau Chi-Man, dim sum head chef of Michelin-starred Hong Kong restaurant Duddell’s. “Previously, it was rare to see white radish outside Asia, and the look of it is similar to turnip. People used that name for a long time before realising the mistake, but the name turnip cake stayed.” But how it came to be associated with Lunar New Year is unclear. Tse Sun Fuk, head dim sum chef at another Michelin-starred Cantonese restaurant in Hong Kong, Ming Court, says: “The origin of turnip cake is divergent. Some say that many Cantonese in the Guangdong region were poor, and Chinese white radishes are cheap and grow best in cold weather. So it started to be commonly used to make Chinese cakes during Lunar New Year.” View this post on Instagram It's beautiful, isn't it? Reposted from @phung.kay (@get_regrann) - Crispy, fluffy pan fried turnip cake with Phung Kay XO sauce. XO sauce is a luxurious condiment developed in Hong Kong in the 80s and named after XO cognac. In those days it was a sign of wealth when you could afford to swig the fine brandy! You can purchase our Phung Kay XO sauce at our next supper club. #veganasianfood #turnipcake #lobakgo A post shared by The Vegan Chinee (@theveganchinee) on Nov 22, 2019 at 6:57pm PST Duddell’s makes its own turnip cake every year. “It is made with Chinese radish, Chinese cured pork sausage and pork belly, mushrooms, dried shrimp and conpoy. This is a classic recipe loved by many.” Ming Court also makes its own, and in addition to radish, it contains Chinese sausage, cured meat, conpoy and abalone. Dim sum swap series: which dumplings are healthier and better? The cake is first steamed and then typically cut into pieces and fried, creating a crusty exterior and soft interior. While a Lunar New Year tradition, turnip cake is eaten all year round. “It is a common dim sum item in Cantonese restaurants,” adds Lau. View this post on Instagram mama lin makes AMAZING turnip cake! best when pan fried. help me, i'm in a food coma now. . #dimsum #turnipcake #definitelynotvegetarian #f52grams #kitchn #glutenfree A post shared by lisa lin (@hellolisalin) on Mar 27, 2018 at 4:32pm PDT Nian gao The portion of luck served with this cake, made from sticky rice, is an example of a homonym, which is common in the Chinese language. Here the words nian gao (sticky cake) sound similar to “year high” and this has come to symbolise a higher income, position and children (in terms of growth), with the overall promise of a great year ahead. The Cantonese version of the cake is also often a golden red, which also represents good luck. Eating the cake, typically on the first day of the Lunar New Year, has a history dating back more than 1,000 years, although Lau notes it can be eaten any day during the celebrations. Why non-vegans will love these plant-based places in Hong Kong too Lau also prefers a classic recipe for those sold at Duddell’s. “It is made with rice flour, glutinous rice flour, cornflour, coconut juice and coconut sugar, topped with red date and olive kernel. The quality of coconut juice is the key to a delicious cake.” Tse’s exact ingredients are a secret, but says the two key ones are coconut milk and glutinous rice powder. Some home-made versions can be adapted to include surprising twists with ingredients, such as chopped nuts and black or white sesame seeds to add an exciting flavour to the modern diner’s taste. View this post on Instagram A post shared by HANNAH CHE · vegan recipes (@hannah__chia) on Feb 4, 2019 at 11:45am PST Nian gao is associated with numerous legends It is said to have played a role in a battle in Ancient China which took place around 482BC. The story tells of the Wu Kingdom, located in Suzhou. The leader, Wu Yun (known as Zixu), secretly made sure that part of the barrier wall protecting against attack had been made from glutinous rice bricks. He hinted that in times of trouble citizens should dig under the wall. During one vicious attack after Zixu’s death, a soldier remembered the tale and sure enough, upon digging discovered the rice bricks, which saved the citizens from starvation. Alternatively, the saved-from-starvation tale comes after the Wu Kingdom fell to the Yue Kingdom years later, which cut off the food supply. Wu’s words were remembered and the rice bricks discovered. The making and eating of the cakes is said to have become an annual New Year activity to honour Wu. View this post on Instagram happy new year!! 恭喜發財, 身體健康! watch my stories right now to see how i made the new year's cake (年糕)! @hellomamalin mama lin has put the pressure on me to post the video, so be sure to check ot out! #cny #chinesenewyear #niangao #vegan A post shared by lisa lin (@hellolisalin) on Feb 5, 2019 at 6:22pm PST Nian gao is also believed to help keep the Kitchen God’s lips sealed from turning in a negative report on the family to the Jade Emperor just before the new year. “This sticky sweet snack was believed to be an offering to the Kitchen God, with the aim that his mouth will be stuck together with the sticky cake, so that he can't badmouth the human family in front of the Jade Emperor,” explains Lau. Tse is also familiar with the Kitchen God tale: “People offer nian gao to the Kitchen God to pray for good fortune for the coming year.” Is fine dining dead? China’s Gen Z eaters think so Another origin tale that Lau is familiar with involves a people-eating monster. “Once upon a time there was a monster named Nian. It hunted animals normally, except in winter when they were mostly sheltering in caves. At this time it would turn to hunting people. A tribe named Gao would therefore prepare a lot of rice cake and put them out for the monster, which saved the people. The practice of making rice cakes stayed, and became a new year tradition.” There are also variations on this tale, but all share the same ending – the rice cakes saved the people from being eaten by the monster Nian, and as a result, were made every year. Tse adds another take: “It is considered good luck to eat it during the Lunar New Year period. Told by an old master, the myth of nian gao is that many years ago, a chef specially made it for his child to bless him to grow taller in the new year.” No doubt, these and other legends helped secure the cake’s important role in Chinese culinary culture and, especially, Lunar New Year. Because of all the luck and the festive good vibes, nian gao is also a popular gift – so why not share the good fortune with friends and family this year? Where are Singapore noodles from? How are century eggs made? Are French fries improperly named? And what’s the final verdict on where tikka masala was created? With the Origins series , STYLE delves into the often surprising beginnings of iconic dishes or foods, how they’ve evolved over time and the many ways they’re enjoyed today. Want more stories like this? Sign up here . Follow STYLE on Facebook , Instagram , YouTube and Twitter .