An Essential Guide to the Wide World of Rice Cakes

These treats' memorable bouncy texture comes in many inspired varieties. Plus, some advice on how to make your favorite rice cakes at home.

March 08, 2023
By: Patty Lee

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Photo by: Kadek Bonit Permadi/Getty

Kadek Bonit Permadi/Getty

There’s something undeniably enticing about rice cakes. They’re irresistibly chewy, with a bouncy pull that keeps you coming back for more. They’re incredibly versatile, able to go saucy and spicy or buttery and sweet. And they are hardly singular; they exist in various forms in various cultures under various names. Tteok. Kakinin. Nian gao.

Popular in many Asian cuisines, rice cakes can be an ingredient (such as in savory Shanghainese stir-fried nian gao) or a dish (a la Filipino steamed puto), enjoyed as a daily staple or on special occasions. While a bouncy, springy texture is a shared signature characteristic of rice cakes from all walks of life, there are noticeable differences, too. Rice flour, the main ingredient, can be milled from regular grains or the sweet glutinous variety. When cooked, they can be baked, steamed, or stir-fried. As an ingredient, they can be found in various shapes — long or short, flat or rolled, thin or plump. Here’s a quick rundown on the wide-ranging world of rice cakes:

In the Philippines

Bibingka

Get the Recipe: Bibingka

Photo by: Teri Lyn Fisher

Teri Lyn Fisher

Get the Recipe: Bibingka

When writer and recipe developer (and Food Network alum) Arlyn Osborne thinks about rice cakes, three words come to mind: “Chewy. Sticky. Sweet.” In the Philippines, so many variations exist, and rice cakes have their own unique name in Tagalog.

“Rice cakes have their own category in Filipino cuisine called kakanin,” says Osborne. “Some are everyday dishes, others are reserved for holidays, and it’s believed that their sticky nature binds people together. These cakes are representative of tradition and culture, but also ingenuity, being that they showcase some of the island's most prevalent ingredients: rice, coconut milk, and banana leaves.”

Examples include bibingka, a coconut-scented rice cake baked in banana leaf, puto, fluffy steamed rice cakes occasionally topped with cheese, and Osborne’s personal favorite, biko. “It's made with whole grains of glutinous rice, as opposed to rice flour, and I love the subtle irregular texture it adds. It's also saucy, slathered with a brown sugar coconut milk glaze, which makes it really sticky and gooey.”

In China

Description: Food Network Kitchen's Nian Gao.

Get the Recipe: Nian Gao

Photo by: Matt

Matt

Get the Recipe: Nian Gao

Rice cakes also come in many variations in China, but the most ubiquitous is likely nian gao. The sweet and sticky rice cake is typically made and served for the Lunar New Year holiday since its name, which translates to “higher year,” has an auspicious meaning. A mix of glutinous rice flour and regular rice flour creates the appealing chewy texture; while it can be eaten at room temperature, nian gao is even better when pan-fried, giving the interior a slightly gooey texture and the exterior a nice crisp.

Chef Jon Yao's Stir Fried Rice Cakes with XO sauce, as seen on Food Network's Lunar New Year 2022

Photo by: Melissa Libertelli

Melissa Libertelli

On the savory side, nian gao refers to a type of rice cake that’s used as an ingredient, often in a noodle-like manner. The thin oval-shaped discs, a specialty of Shanghai, are made from pounded glutinous and regular rice flours and are commonly used in stir fries or soups.

In Japan

Chef Yoshi Okai, Taste of Omisoka. Dish is Mochi.

Get the Recipe: Homemade Mochi

Photo by: Kimberly Davis

Kimberly Davis

Get the Recipe: Homemade Mochi

Japan is home to perhaps the most recognizable rice cake of them all: mochi. Like nian gao, the chewy treat is enjoyed as a New Year’s treat and traditionally made by pounding steamed Japanese sticky rice over and over again using a wooden mallet. It goes from sticky to stretchy and smooth, ready to shape into sweet desserts such as daifuku (or the less traditional mochi ice cream) or in savory bites like yakimochi.

In Korea

Spicy Ddukbokki

Get the Recipe: Spicy Ddukbokki

Photo by: Teri Lyn Fisher

Teri Lyn Fisher

Get the Recipe: Spicy Ddukbokki

Sweet rice cakes were once considered a delicacy in Korea. They’re now enjoyed as a celebratory food, says Eunice Park of L.A.’s Lucky Rice Cake, a family-owned shop known for its beautiful party rice cakes.

“Korean rice cakes are steamed, not baked, and depending on which rice cake you are making, the process is different,” explains Park, who crafts cakes from rice that’s freshly-milled in the Lucky Rice kitchen.

Baeksulgi, a white round or square cake traditionally served at a baby’s 100-day celebration or first birthday, is made from short grain rice flour. Chewy, sticky injeolmi —bite-sized rice cakes dusted in roasted soybean powder — often served during the mid-autumn Chuseok holiday, is made from glutinous rice flour. “To make baeksulgi rice cake, it is shaped before steaming. To make injeolmi rice cake, it is pounded for the chewy texture,” says Park.

Then there’s the savory tteok that most likely first springs to mind when it comes to Korean rice cake. Like injeolmi, it’s made by pounding rice flour until chewy, then rolled into short or long logs that can be pan-fried ‘til crispy or tossed into sauces or soups, such as rabokki.

In Singapore and Malaysia

Kuih lapis is a traditional Malay nyonya sweet desert.

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Kuih lapis is a traditional Malay nyonya sweet desert.

Photo by: Chee Siong Teh/Getty

Chee Siong Teh/Getty

There’s an entire collection of colorful, bite-sized delights in Singapore and Malaysia known as kuih, encompassing cakes, cookies, dumplings and more. Many are made out of glutinous rice and boast the springy bounce rice cakes are known for. Additional ingredients vary depending on the kind of kuih being made, but Southeast Asian products such as coconut milk, pandan and palm sugar are common.

Red Tortoise Cake, Angku Kueh or Kue Thok. Chinese Sweet Cake from Sticky Rice with Mung Bean Paste Filling

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Red Tortoise Cake, Angku Kueh or Kue Thok. Chinese Sweet Cake from Sticky Rice with Mung Bean Paste Filling

Photo by: Ika Rahma/Getty

Ika Rahma/Getty

Like rice cakes in other countries, kuih can be cooked in a number of ways, from steaming to boiling and while some are reserved for special occasions, most are considered an everyday snack. In fact, it’s common to see people peeling layers of kuih lapis, a steamed rice cake made with thin, different-colored layers, to enjoy on the street. Another vibrant specialty is the ang ku kueh, a steamed cake also made from glutinous rice flour that’s tinged bright red and shaped in a special mold to resemble a tortoise shell.

What to Know About Making Rice Cakes at Home

Mastering rice cakes takes years of patience and practice, but it can also be a fun home experience that yields delicious results. Just know that making rice cakes from scratch can be a messy process — though as with most cooking projects, that’s part of the fun.

Ichigo Daifuku (Strawberry Mochi)

Photo by: Teri Lyn Fisher

Teri Lyn Fisher

A Note About Rice Flour

There are two main types of rice flour: regular rice flour made from medium or long grain rice and glutinous rice flour (sometimes also called sweet rice flour) made from short grain rice. Regular rice flour lacks gluten so recipes will often call for the addition of glutinous rice flour or starches such as potato starch or tapioca starch to help achieve a chewy texture. Glutinous rice flour, on the other hand, is naturally sticky.

Rice flours can be milled differently, which affects the final texture of what you’re cooking. Thai brand Erawan mills its rice by water, California’s Koda Farms dry mills rice to make its mochiko sweet rice flour and Oregon’s Bob’s Red Mill stone-grounds its grains.

Chef Ji Hye Kim of Ann Arbor restaurant Miss Kim opts for glutinous rice flour. “I generally prefer working with sweet glutinous rice flour, rather than regular rice flour,” she says. “Sweet glutinous rice flour like the one from Koda Farms works really well. It gives me better chew on the final rice cakes, while still retaining a soft, sticky texture.”

Here at Food Network, we make sure to list the specific rice flour that a recipe was tested with to help you achieve the right texture.

Shopping for Rice Cakes

Rice cakes used for cooking, such as tteok and nian gao, can be found in Asian supermarkets and through online specialty grocers such as Weee! and Umamicart. Some markets may have fresh rice cakes, but most stock the frozen kind that come vacuum sealed so they’re a great freezer staple.

Gireum Tteokbokki

Get the Recipe: Gireum Tteokbokki

Photo by: Teri Lyn Fisher

Teri Lyn Fisher

Get the Recipe: Gireum Tteokbokki

A Rice Cake Shortcut

Making rice cakes can be time-consuming and labor-intensive. Kuih, for example, requires patience to steam and build each layer, while Japanese mochi traditionally calls for pounding until the perfect texture is reached. But Kim has a quick and easy method that makes rice cake in a matter of minutes.

“My trick is that you can actually use a microwave instead of using a steamer,” she says. “Once you have the rice cake dough ready, cover it and microwave for about two minutes at medium-high heat. Then, using a fork, mix the dough well again, still in the bowl. Microwave one to more minutes until the rice cake dough is cooked and ready to be shaped.”

Storing Rice Cakes

Rice cakes are meant to be eaten and enjoyed as soon as possible since the texture will start to change rather quickly. If you do need to store leftover rice cake, wrap tightly in plastic wrap and place in the fridge or freezer and re-steam to eat. “Our rice cakes have no preservatives, therefore, I ask my clients to enjoy their rice cakes the same day,” says Park, the Korean rice cake specialist. “But if someone has a baeksulgi rice cake and keeps it frozen, they can re-steam it and eat it another day at home.”

The texture may not be as great as when the rice cake was fresh, but you’ll still get to enjoy another bouncy, chewy bite.

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