Chinese niangao vs Korean tteokbokki – which rice cake dish came first, and what’s the origin story of the tasty Lunar New Year staple?

Korean and Chinese rice cakes – same same but different? Let the debate begin. Photos: Elaine Yau, Jonathan Wong
The great kimchi debate – about whether the pickled cabbage dish is originally Korean or Chinese – last month drew millions of Chinese and Koreans to social media to defend the origin of the food staple, even prompting a minor online war involving Korea’s YouTube personality Hamzy and  Chinese internet celebrity Li Ziqi.

Another food caught in the crosshairs of the online cultural food fight is the universally-beloved rice cake.

Hong Kong’s most giftable luxury Lunar New Year puddings

All the ingredients for Chinese-style rice cakes with zha choi and sliced pork. Photo: Jonathan Wong

A versatile dish made with glutinous rice flour and compressed or combined with another binding substance, rice cakes exist in various shapes and are particularly prevalent in Asian cuisines. Like pasta, they possess almost no flavour by themselves, but when cooked with sauces they retain their chewy texture and absorb their complementary favours. 

Chinese rice cakes, or niangao, are made from pounded rice and have a sticky, chewy texture. Niangao’s origin story may date back to as many as 2,500 years ago to Suzhou during a chaotic period of war, which lasted from 722 to 481BC. The Wu Kingdom’s prime minister was first credited with shaping glutinous rice flour into bricklike shapes and saving his people from starvation when his kingdom was besieged. 

Restaurants closed for Lunar New Year? Here’s how to pair wines like a pro at home

Niangao lore also tells of a Beijing custom that involves eating rice cakes on the first day of Lunar New Year back in the Liao dynasty. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, niangao became a common staple, with different varieties developed in the north and south.

Niangao (rice cakes) can be eaten all year round but are traditionally eaten during Lunar New Year too. Photo: Jonathan Wong
One notable recipe found in southern China, particularly in Shanghai, involves stir-frying flat rice cakes with sliced pork, leafy greens and a sweet-savoury sauce consisting of soy sauce and sugar. While rice cakes can be eaten all year round, they are traditionally regarded as special dishes shared during Lunar New Year reunion meals, representing good luck and fortune as niangao is a homonym for “higher year”.

Meanwhile, literally translated as “stir-fried rice cake”, tteokbokki is a popular Korean street food that is made with small-sized garaetteok. Unlike the Chinese version that is sliced and flat, garaetteok is a long and cylindrically-shaped tteok, or rice cake, and has a significantly chewier bite than its Chinese counterpart. 

Korean street-style spicy fried rice cake with dumplings from Roll & Mari in Tsim Sha Tsui. Photo: SCMP Archive

The first references to tteok appeared in several books about wars between China and Korea that took place between 480 and 222BC. The books told of washed rice that was pounded into a powder and mixed with water, before being shaped into flat discs that were steamed. 

K-pop stars’ favourite foods and Korean dishes revealed

To draw focus on the rice cakes’ chewy texture, tteokbokki is served with minimal garnish and side ingredients. The rice cakes are boiled and coated in a red sauce of gochujang (chilli paste), gochugaru (red pepper flakes), soy sauce, sugar and sesame seeds. Some home-made recipes include sliced eomuk (flat fish cake), cabbage and scallions. 

Korean rice cakes have a more cylindrical shape and retain their shape and form throughout cooking. Photo: Jonathan Wong

Spicy tteokbokki is generally acknowledged to have a more recent origin. Developed in 1953, the year the Korean war ended, the recipe can be traced back to a woman in Seoul who made the rice cakes with gochujang sauce as an affordable comfort snack. 

5 items cleared from shelves after appearing on the Bangtan Bomb YouTube series

A Korean rice cake dish that is similar to Chinese niangao is the Gungjung Tteokbokki, or royal court rice cakes. As its name suggests, the traditional dish dates back to the Joseon Dynasty and was a key aspect of royal cuisine. In contrast to the modern spicy version commonly found on street stalls, Gungjung Tteokbokki is stir-fried with sliced meat, vegetables and a mild soy-based sauce.

Although rice cakes are now commonly served in both countries, there is no doubt that rice cakes share long and illustrious histories in both countries. They will surely continue to play important roles in Chinese and Korean traditions for future generations.

Want more stories like this? Sign up  here. Follow STYLE on  Facebook Instagram YouTube and  Twitter.

  • Cultural food fights aren’t new – as we recently learned from the great kimchi wars YouTubers Li Ziqi and Hamzy got caught up in
  • Nevertheless, Korean and Chinese rice cakes date back thousands of years, and both have their own claims to fame