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Tikoy’s sticky history

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By Jhon Aldrin Casinas

As the world prepares to celebrate Chinese New Year on February 5, a staple in almost every dining table will be the ubiquitous, round-shaped sticky and sweet “tikoy” which, if folklore is to be believed, makes families stick together and loose lips (gossip-mongers) clam up.

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Tikoy is a delicacy made with only three main ingredients—glutinous rice flour, brown sugar, and water. It is either steamed or fried coated with flour or beaten egg as a dessert that is widely believed to bring good luck.

Some historians said that during the reign of the Han Dynasty from 206 B.C. to 220 A.D., the Chinese people used to eat a sweet cake called “denggao” on the ninth day of the ninth month of the lunar calendar.

Legend also has it that the delicacy was named after a monster named Nian who would come out of his lair up in the mountains to hunt for food. To stop the monster from eating the villagers instead of animals, a man named Gao left sticky rice pastries outside the villagers’ doors for the monster to eat.

Another legend of the sweet treat dates back to around 2,500 years ago where the rice cakes were said to have saved the besieged villagers of Wu, now Suzhuo, from starvation when they took shelter in the village walls. They found that the bricks were made from glutinous rice flour and were said to be the original Nian Gao. You need not guess what happened to the wall if this legend was to be believed.

Nian Gao was brought to the Philippines centuries ago by early Chinese traders, artisans, and immigrants mainly from Fujian province in southeast China. The word “tikoy” was derived from the Hokkien word “ti-ke” which translates to “sweet pastry.”

It is also widely believed that the founder of the famous Eng Bee Tin bakery, Chua Chiu Hung, popularized the sticky delicacy when he started selling it at his then small stall along Ongpin Street in Chinatown in Manila in 1912.

Wilson Lee Flores, owner of the 80-year-old Kamuning Bakery Cafe, said tikoy has an auspicious significance for its Chinese name Nian Gao which means “higher year” and its sticky quality symbolizes togetherness of family and friends.

“It has become not only a Chinese and east Asian custom but as well as a very Filipino tradition to eat tikoy as dessert or to share it with others as gifts for it symbolizes our best wishes to those who receives it,” Flores said.

He also said that sweet tikoy is an ideal offering to the altar of the home’s Kitchen God, with the hope that he wouldn’t say or report negative things about the human family to the Jade Emperor due to its mouth full of the sticky treat.

“It is also considered lucky due to its almost perfect round shape and its delicious sweet taste is believed to bring good cheer,” he added.

The “tikoy” has evolved from its humble beginnings into a multi-flavored treat in the country. It now comes in the original white flavor, brown sugar, pandan, ube, strawberry, and red bean varieties. It also has become a year-round favorite dessert.

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