Growing up Chinoy, you’ve probably heard your non-Chinoy friends tell you “Pa-Tikoy ka naman” at some point. Why has this mixture of glutinous rice flour, sugar, and water been so closely linked to Chinese culture in the Philippines?
The tikoy is believed to have been brought over by Chinese immigrants coming from the Fujian province in the 19th century. The local term “tikoy” comes from the Hokkien word, “ti keuh,” which translates to “sweet cake.”
The distinguished red square box tikoy graces almost every Chinese household during the Lunar New Year! But how did it become a Chinese New Year staple?
The tikoy is called “nian gao” in Mandarin. In English, it directly translates to “year higher.” It has become the symbol of achieving greatness in all aspects of life. It’s one of China’s oldest food and as usual with things that are as old as time, its origin is now a variety of historical and mythological.
One of the popular myths is told especially during the Chinese New Year. It is said that a monster named Nian lived in the mountains who came out of hiding when he was hungry. The people who lived in the village near the mountain feared that Nian would resort to hunting them when winter came and the animals would hibernate. One of the villagers, Gao, came up with the ingenious idea to leave rice cakes in front of everyone’s door for Nian to eat instead.
The plan was successful. Nian ate the pastries and returned to the mountain without harming any of the villagers. As thanks and celebration for saving them, they rejoice and served rice pastries that they called “Nian Gao.”
Another legend takes place in the Spring and Autumn Period in Suzhou, which was the capital of the Wu Kingdom. The king held a celebration, feeling confident in the newly completed strong walls built for his protection, and everyone rejoiced with him. Except for Prime Minister Wu ZiXu. He told his entourage: “War should not be viewed lightly. The strong wall is a good protection indeed, but if the enemy state besieges our kingdom, the wall is also a hard barrier to ourselves. In case things really go badly, remember to dig a hole under the wall.”
Many years later, after ZiXu had died, his warning came true. People starved to death during the siege, but the soldiers remembered ZiXu’s words. They found that the wall hidden below the earth was built with bricks made of glutinous flour. This saved many people from starvation, and the glutinous rice bricks are said to be the original nian gao.
After this, people made nian gao every year to commemorate Zixu. And as time passed, nian gao became known as the Chinese New Year cake.
Those are just 2 of the origin stories of one of the famous tikoy! So are you excited to receive your red box this year?