January has come to an end and we’ve probably recovered from the NYE hangover. But the fifth of February this year marks yet another festive celebration – the Chinese Lunar New Year! Binondo will be once again the center of attention because, like its Western counterpart, this event is also filled with fireworks, lion dances, and bountiful food.

If you’re familiar with Chinese traditions, you’ll know that the circle shape is quintessential in such events. Which is why aside from wearing shirts with polka dots and putting round fruits on the table, the Tikoy is always present. We all know it’s a sticky dessert, but what are its origins?

What’s in a name?

 

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During celebrations, tikoy is to Chinese as lechon is to Pinoys, and rightly so. The famous delicacy is a round, glutinous, rice cake mixed with lard and sugar. It usually comes in traditional brown or white, but some bakeshops have modified it to concoct different flavors like Butterscotch, Matcha Green Tea, and others.

Some people claim that its Tagalog name came from the Hokkien/Fujien words ‘ti’ which means sweet and ‘ke’ which means cake. Meanwhile, its Chinese term pronounced with a Mandarin intonation sounds like “higher year” (nian – year, gao – higher).

An offering to the kitchen god

 

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Like other traditional Chinese food, this sticky treat also has its own story. It is especially known for its stickiness and as it turns out, its texture was beneficial to the ancient Chinese according to legend. It has been said that there was once a kitchen god who observes each household every year. And right before the new year starts, the visitor goes back to heaven to report the findings to the Jade Emperor, or the Emperor of the Heavens. While a good report meant good luck, a bad report would bring misfortunes for one whole year to the family. In order to prevent that from happening, the people formulated a plan – they offered the now-famous sticky rice cake to the kitchen god. What seemed to be a harmless gesture turned out to be the people’s victory, as its texture supposedly kept the deity’s mouth shut and prevented him from telling bad things about the family.

The monster called Nian

 

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Another popular myth that tells of the history of Tikoy was about a monster called Nian. The monster was said to stay for hours end in a cave and hunts animals when it grows hungry; however, the winter meant no game due to hibernation. Because of this. it was then forced to go to villages and eat people instead.

The people’s fear for Nian went on for decades until a boy named Gao saved them. He invented a rice cake and placed it on people’s front doors right before the monster came back. Nian didn’t find any people to eat, but it did find the pastry and decided to eat it. As soon as it was full, it left the village and returned to the mountains. Since then, it became customary for the villagers to bake Tikoy during the winter to keep them safe.

A prosperous year

 

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If there’s one thing the Chinese share with Filipinos, it is how we both value tradition and family. The round shape of the delicacy symbolizes prosperity and harmony, while its stickiness stands for togetherness and sweetness in the family.

So go ahead and say your thanks when your Chinoy friend hands you a box of Tikoy. It only means they wish for you to have a prosperous new year ahead – prosperous enough to get to eat your favorite Tikoy all year round!

Go ahead and grab your tikoy treats at Eng Bee Tin, Holland Hopia & Bakery, Crystal Jade, and Crowne Plaza’s Xin Tian Di!

Planning to give out some food gifts for Chinese New Year? Check this out!