Everybody’s familiar with tikoy, that round, sticky, Chinese delicacy made from glutinous rice flour and sugar, which is given away to friends by Chinese families during the celebration of the Chinese New Year.
Given the big Chinese community in the Philippines, which is home to the oldest Chinatown in the world, Chinese New Year has through the years evolved into a national celebration or holiday involving not just the Chinese or Chinoys but also full-blooded Pinoys. And when it comes to food, tikoy is the one closely associated with Chinese New Year. It is a popular gift because it is sticky and therefore symbolizes the way families and friends will stick together in the coming year.
The tikoy is present in all Chinese New Year celebrations happening all over the world. It is better known elsewhere as nian gao, which literally means “year cake.” In Indonesia, where it is made only once a year, it goes by the name kue keranjang. In Malaysia, its name happens to be kuih bakul. In Vietnam, it answers to the name bάnh to. Its other names are khanom kheng (Thailand), tikay (Burma), seenakku (Sri Lanka).
By whatever name it goes, it is the same rice cake made with glutinous rice cake flour that has been ground into a paste and sweetened with sugar, then is poured into a cake pan and steamed. Once it sets and hardens, it can be cut into thick, rectangular slices and eaten as is or dipped in beaten egg and fried.
Being a Chinoy, when I was growing up, I would wait for the tikoy to harden a bit in the ref (so it would be easier to slice), then carefully cut a few thick slices, peel off the plastic liner, and bite into a slice. Since it has been steamed, technically, the tikoy is already cooked and ready to eat straight out of the box, I would eat it as is. I preferred it over slices of tikoy that have been dipped in beaten egg and pan-fried. These days, tikoy can also be enjoyed as tikoy turon. Simply slice tikoy, wrap it with lumpia wrapper on its own or with fresh or bottled jackfruit, and pan-fry until golden crisp.
In Malaysia, tikoy is fried in between pieces of taro or sweet potato to make a sandwich. In Sri Lanka, it is enjoyed with grated coconut.
There was a time when there were only two variants of tikoy to choose from — the brown tikoy and the white tikoy — whose color depended on the type of sugar used to sweeten them. Brown sugar or white sugar. When I was a kid and had no care about health, I would pick the white tikoy over the brown one any time. As an adult, though, I went for the brown tikoy.
These days, tikoy comes in different flavors and colors — ube or purple yam (purple), pandan (green), langka or jackfruit (yellow), mango (yellow orange) and strawberry (pink). Marco Polo Ortigas Manila, whose Cantonese restaurant Lung Hin offers a range of nian gao yearly, even has a pandan and coconut flavored tikoy as well as a red dates sugar flavored tikoy this year. While the traditional tikoy came in a crude round shape lined with plastic and then covered on top with a plastic sheet with the Chinese character for luck printed in red, Marco Polo Ortigas’ nian gao are immaculately molded, with the Chinese character for luck embossed on it. And aside from the round tikoys, the hotel’s nian gao also comes in gold bar shapes in the double gold bar nian gao in brown sugar.
Over at Marriott Hotel Manila’s Man Ho Chinese restaurant, tikoy is available in a premium red box sealed with a gold stamp. It contains two pieces of koi fish-shaped tikoy (weighing 350 grams and 750 grams each). It is also available in a gold tin can containing a koi-shaped tikoy and an ingot-shaped tikoy (weighing 350 grams and 750 grams, respectively). The koi fish symbolizes good luck and abundance, while the Chinese gold ingot was used in ancient China as money so it symbolizes good fortune or prosperity in the coming year.
In shape, flavor, color and design, the Chinese New Year delicacy, tikoy or nian gao, has certainly come a long way. But whether it comes in a crude traditional round shape or a perfect 3D koi, ingot or gold bar form, the tikoy continues to be the symbol of good luck and good fortune in the Chinese New Year, even as all the Chinese communities in the world prepare to welcome the Year of the Metal Rat on 25 January this year.
Kung Hei Fat Choy! Kiong Hee Huat Chay! Happy Chinese New Year! It is tikoy time!