Water Chestnut Cake for Chinese New Year and Valentine’s Day | Hong Kong Food Blog with Recipes, Cooking Tips mostly of Chinese and Asian styles | Taste Hong Kong

Water Chestnut Cake for Chinese New Year and Valentine’s Day

Fresh Water Chestnut Cake

Chinese New Year is a season for savoring cakes here in Hong Kong, turnip cakes, taro cakes, sticky rice cakes, all kinds of Chinese cakes you can name. Because the words ‘cake (糕)’ and ‘high’ in Chinese (Cantonese) both pronounces as ‘gou’, so the connotations of prestige and rising derived from ‘high’ are also imposed on ‘cake’, which is thus regarded as a symbolic food for bringing goodwill.

In a few days, the Chinese New Year and the Valentine’s Day are going to conflate on February 14, 2010. This is a cake recipe, at the same time this cake is also a dessert. I just find it to be a nice co-incidence to prepare this water chestnut cake (ma tai gou 馬蹄糕 in Cantonese) for the two festivals, which rarely come together on the same day. Anyway, this cake is easy and quick to make; with all the ingredients handy, the preparations can be done in about an hour (steaming time included) or even less than an hour if you are a seasoned cook. Besides, it can be prepared in advance and stored in fridge for up to a week.

  • Ingredients
  • 70g water chestnut powder
  • 4 pcs fresh water chestnut (or from canned) – here is another recipe for using water chestnuts
  • 70g rock sugar
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 tsp custard powder (dissolved by 2 tsp water)
  • These portions of ingredients altogether fit well into my rectangular baking dish of 17(W)x11(D)x4(H)cm
  • Custard Powder is Optional
  • I like to have this firm-jelly-like water chestnut cake looked translucent and slightly yellowish, therefore rock sugar (for transparency) and custard powder (for the yellow color) are used. If not, just omit the custard powder and substitute rock sugar by brown sugar, which will give the cake a brownish appearance.

  • Water Chestnut Cake Prepare


Grease the dish for steaming. Wash water chestnuts; peel and dice them right before cooking, if not, soak the peeled water chestnuts in water to avoid turning rusty.

Dissolve water chestnut powder with one cup of water (cold water). Put diced water chestnuts, sugar with the remaining one cup of water into a pot, bring to boil.

As soon as the liquid boils and the sugar dissolves, turn off heat. Immediately, stir in the dissolved water chestnut powder and custard powder. Like using corn starch for thickening, if the powder settles to the bottom, give it a good stir before mixing it into the hot water. Stir well with efforts to achieve a lump-free and pasty mixture.

Pour the mixture into the dish, flatten it into the same height.

In a wok, set up a rack to hold the dish above 4 cups of water, cover and steam for 15 minutes over high heat. To make sure if it is perfectly done, insert a toothpick to see if it comes out clean.

Fresh Water Chestnut Cake

Serving the Cake
Steaming : After steamed, let cool the cake for about 10 to 15 minutes before slicing. After stored in fridge, steam the cake again if to serve hot again. Or, it is also good to serve cold.
Pan Frying : After cooled and sliced, they can be re-heated and caramelized by pan-frying. And this is the way the famous Cantonese dim sum – pan-fried water chestnut cake – is prepared. If it is the first time you pan-fry chestnut cake slices, try to do it with a small portion first and see how it works out in your pan. Their sugary content can cause easy sticking, but a decent pan that is heated hot enough shall help. Adding corn starch (about 1/10 of the total powder) shall make the cake firmer and easier to fry, I didn’t do this because I love to have the pure taste of water chestnuts.

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  1. MaryMoh

    Looks very delicious….mmmm. A Chinese friend once made for me & it was really delicious. This would be lovely for Chinese New Year.

  2. Patty

    Happy Chinese New Year to you! The chestnut cake looks soooooo good and moist and delicious. It makes me want to jump through the screen and it some right away! Thank you for sharing!

  3. Rasa Malaysia

    Maureen – this looks great. I have never tried this and never seen this in Dim Sum restaurants, too.

  4. mademoiselle délicieuse

    I love 馬蹄糕 but can’t eat too much of it in one go. And I never knew there was such a thing as water chestnut powder!

  5. Sook @ My Fabulous Recipes

    What an interesting recipe. Sounds great! Would love to try it.

  6. Christine@Christine's Recipes

    This is one of my favourite dim sum at Chinese restaurant. Great to have it again for Chinese New Year. In Hong Kong, my mother-in-law used to cook for me. Now I have to cook by myself if I want it. It’s quite difficult to find any fresh water chestnuts here, but the canned ones still good.

  7. Maeko Wong

    Look mouth-watering even though chestnut is not my thing! Btw, Happy Chinese New Year to you!

  8. tigerfish

    I have tried this in Cantonese dim sum but it is not so common. You cook really well!

  9. Kitchen Butterfly

    Looks stunning. We’re going to watch the Chinese New Year Celebrations in the Hague tomorrow. Very excited, as my daughter #1 is….she’s taking Mandarin classes so she may get to practice!!!!

  10. TasteHongKong

    Great Year of Tiger Everyone! It is now 0.03am and is the First Day of Chinese New Year.

    @ MaryMoh,
    @ Patty,
    @ Rasa Malaysia,
    @ mademoiselle délicieuse,
    @ Sook,
    @ Christine@Christine’s Recipes,
    @ Maeko Wong,
    @ tigerfish,
    @ Kitchen Butterfly
    Kung Hey Fat Choy (恭喜發財)! Healthy and Prosperous Year to you too!

  11. Angie@Angie's Recipes

    Gong Xi Fa Cai!
    This water chestnut cake is perfectly made! Transparent, and Q.

  12. krissy @ the food addicts

    how interesting! i have never tried water chestnut cake before. it looks like a healthy dessert. yum! happy chinese new year to you!

  13. noobcook

    oh your dessert looks fantastic. Love water chestnut, I wish I can sink my teeth into it right now.

    Happy New Year, Gong Xi Fa Cai!! 🙂

  14. TasteHongKong

    Angie@Angie’s Recipes, Thank you, Gong Xi Fa Cai to you too (I believe I can ‘type’ accurately in Mandarin but less precise in speaking :D).

  15. TasteHongKong

    @krissy@the food addicts, I am thinking to use honey to replace sugar, and this will probably make the cake even healthier.

    @noocook, Thank you, Happy Chinese New Year to you too. Tell you what, chewing the jelly-like cake with the crunchy water chestnuts between teeth is enjoyable!

  16. Joy

    This is beautiful!! I am celebrating Lunar New Year through all the wonderful blog posts of traditional snacks and foods and this chestnut cake is gorgeous. I can only imagine how good it must taste! Gong xi fa cai and best wishes to a prosperous new year!!!

  17. Juliana

    Oh! I love water chestnut cake, I always order it when I am at the Dim Sum place. Never tried to make it at home…now I know how I can make it…thanks! Looks delicious, right consistency 🙂

  18. Divin

    I never had this before. They are beautiful and very unique. For me they are. Lovely photos as always.

  19. XiaoYen

    The custard powder is an interesting ingredient here. I use chestnut powder in my recipe. I’d like to try your version and taste the difference. The picture looks yummy!

  20. Carolyn Jung

    I’ve had this at dim sum restaurants. But I confess I was never sure how it was made. Thanks for demystifying it.

  21. LC

    Do you have a picture of the chestnut power (ie. picture of the box) you buy?

    Thank you.

  22. TasteHongKong

    @LC, Yes, please check out a picture on the water chestnut powder here. And, by clicking the words ‘water chestnut’ under the Ingredient section in this recipe, you may also reach the same link. Enjoy!

  23. LC

    Can I please ask what brand/kind of custard powder you used?
    Thank you LC

  24. TasteHongKong

    For the custard powder in this water chestnut cake, I use Birds.
    Have fun and enjoy!

  25. KX

    Hi, this looks really good! Do you know if I can use anything else to substitute the water chestnut powder?

  26. TasteHongKong

    Hi, for making water chestnut cake, I haven’t tried other substitutes. Lotus root starch (or powder) may be able to produce a similar texture yet it may even be less popular than water chestnut powder in most places.

  27. Pat

    Love your blog very much..good many interesting recipes..Thank you…


  28. TasteHongKong

    Thank you! Feel free to surf around and hope to hear from you again.

  29. AI

    You have some great food!
    I was trying to make this water chestnut cake before I stumbled upon your page, but I’ve always failed.
    Usually it’s much too thin and liquid. Once I got it to a semi-solid form, but when I tried to fry it, it slowly ‘melting’ into a slush. It still tasted good, but I wonder how you can make that solid firm shape? Do I need more water chestnut powder? Does the custard powder also have thickening properties?

  30. TasteHongKong

    After my water chestnut cake was steamed, I let it cool down on counter top (during winter) and slice. That slice of cake was made from the same recipe you read here.
    To achieve a firmer texture for frying, you may add some more corn starch as suggested under “Serving the Cake”. I think the custard powder won’t thicken, especially for only 2 tea spoons.

  31. Tor

    I didn’t know you could cook with water chestnuts – my mother is Taiwanese but we always had nian gao for New Year instead. I always think of water chestnuts as an exclusively savoury ingredient, but this looks really good.

  32. TasteHongKong

    Thanks! We too like serving nian gao (sticky rice cake) during Chinese New Year. And it is also common to find water chestnuts in our savory dishes, like this Lettuce Wraps.

  33. Taylor

    I’m dying to make this (once I get a hold of chestnut flour. Near impossible to find anywhere), but even before that, I must ask you:

    Can this be made using a water bath (think flan, here) ? I have no steamer or other method of steaming… Unless I can just place my roasting tray full of water onto the burners of my stove. Which is it, in this case? Stove or oven?

  34. TasteHongKong

    Apart from steaming, I haven’t used other methods in making this. But you may do this without a steamer, that is, by setting up a rack with water in a wok or in a larger pan over a heat source as in this recipe. Which also means, be it a wok, a pan or a roasting tray, it has to be a vessel (with lid) large enough to accommodate the steaming dish sitting above the rack and water.
    Hope this helps and enjoy!

  35. Taylor

    Eurgh, I’ll try.

  36. Eliza

    I refer to this step: Dissolve water chestnut powder with one cup of water (cold water).
    Does the cold water mean water from the fridge or normal room temperature water?

  37. TasteHongKong

    Water at room temperature will be fine.

  38. Eliza


  39. Irene

    Thanks for the recipe. I have been steaming the cake for more than 40mins but the mixture still stick to the toothpick but the mixture turn translucent. Is it a failure and is the mixture too watery?

  40. TasteHongKong

    It sounds like there is something wrong with the batter not the steaming time. After the water chestnut powder solution is stirred in the hot water, the mixture (batter) should resemble a rather thick cream soup. Which is why the mixing has to be done immediately after the sugary solution is removed from heat. If you find the mixture watery, return it to very low heat and keep stirring until it turns thickened.

    When the cake is still hot, it might be too soft to slice. So you may want to let it cool and set a bit more before slicing.

    Hope this helps.

  41. Ana C.

    Hi, what is the Chinese name for custard powder? I’ve never heard of it, but I can probably buy it at the market if I know the Chinese name. Thanks!

  42. TasteHongKong

    @Ana C,
    Custard powder in Chinese is 吉士粉. Or, as suggested above, you may substitute rock sugar by brown sugar. Good Luck!

  43. Helena

    Hi Taste ! I don’t know if you remember it but I had advised you that the first time I tried to make this cake , it didn’t turn out good. I actually made it again some days ago, following your advice about the brand of chestnut flour to use, and this time it succeeded !
    I’ve let it cool before slicing it and refrigerating, so that when I feel like eating one, I can pan fry it quickly. The taste of the pan fried cake reminds me of that of cotton candy, it’s a real treat 🙂

  44. TasteHongKong

    Happy to hear your success, though I haven’t been able to associate this with cotton candy, anyway enjoy and let’s forget the past :)!

  45. Helena

    I agree !
    I think we all have a different baggage thus different feelings about food, but perhaps it is just the flavour of caramelized sugar and the vanilla content of my custard powder that had me making this unexpected association 🙂

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    Thanks for a marvelous posting! I really enjoyed reading it,
    you may be a great author.I will make sure to bookmark your blog and
    will eventually come back very soon. I want to encourage you to continue your great work,
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  47. Ana C.

    Hi, I had followed your recipe yesterday, but it didn’t turn out well. The flour and water separated and I had a big lumpy layer and a watery layer on top. Do you think it’s because the water might have cooled too much before I added the flour?

  48. TasteHongKong

    @Ana C,
    Yes, do not allow the hot sugar solution to cool down while doing mixing. As sugar is dissolved in boiling water, stir in the water chestnut solution IMMEDIATELY (give it a good stir to prevent starch from settling to the bottom) to yield a pasty mixture. Besides, you do not add ‘flour’ to the hot sugar solution, dissolve water chestnut powder in water first (2nd paragraph); water at room temperature would be fine.
    Wish you success and enjoy soon!

  49. Shirley Berry

    Hi, tried but mine is not translucent but opaque. Need to ask if we need to sieve the water chestnut powder ? Cause I did as i see a lot of tiny pebbles in it. Is that normal ? And instead of putting in Water Chestnut I used Osmanthus floHappy Birthday Ms Liw

  50. Shirley Berry

    Sorry for the typo error above on the last part. As mentioned I used Osmanthus flower instead. Need your advice where did I go wrong. Because I sieved the water chestnut powder or I substitute water chestnut with Osmanthus flower ? Pls advice and thank you

  51. Shirley Berry

    Hi, tried but mine is not translucent but opaque. Need to ask if we need to sieve the water chestnut powder ? Cause I did as i see a lot of tiny pebbles in it. Is that normal ? And instead of putting in Water Chestnut I used Osmanthus flowers. It turned out opaque instead of translucent. Where do I go wrong please advice.

  52. TasteHongKong

    @Shirley Berry,
    Although the flour has a coarse texture, you don’t need to sieve it here. What we do is to dissolve the flour with enough water (at room temperature will be fine). With pure water chestnut flour, you may find a few ‘impurities’ after it is dissolved in water, but they should be the skin of water chestnuts not pebbles.

    You may want to try to reheat the cake or pan-fry a portion of it as suggested above, if it doesn’t turn translucent, then I suspect that it is problem with the flour.

  53. Shirley Berry

    Hi, thank you so much for your info. It helps a lot. I will try again. Although it is not translucent but all my friends enjoyed it. Some not used to the Osmanthus taste 🙂
    Once again thank you

  54. Lavender

    Hi, instead of using brown or rock sugar, can i use slab sugar or raw cane sugar?

  55. Lavender

    Hi, instead of brown or rock sugar, can i use slab sugar or raw cane sugar?

  56. TasteHongKong

    Yes, if you don’t mind the rather intense taste of slab sugar or cane sugar to overpower the mild flavor of water chestnut flour (and to darken the color of the cake).

  57. Apoorv

    Thks for your wonderful riecpe! Just tried ur method n I can’t believe how easy it is now for me to roast chesnuts! I used to struggle cutting X across the chesnuts , then struggle to peel off the skin. Following ur method – easy to cut, easy to peel n beautiful whole roasted chesnuts in a fraction of the time I previously used to take to roast chesnuts!Thks Chef John! :)Susanna,Perth, Australia