Tang yuan – a sweet labor of love for Lantern Festival

Well, Lunar New Year has come and gone. Although my tang yuan were late, at least I had made them close to the end of Chinese New Year, which is tradition. Tang yuan 湯圓 are small glutinous rice balls usually filled with a sweet, crushed black sesame, peanut, peanut coconut, or red bean paste mixture. They are served steaming hot, usually in a sweet milky broth or brown-sugar ginger soup. They are typically eaten at the end of Lunar New Year during what is called Lantern Festival to symbolize the unity of family and loved ones. The round shape of tang yuan is associated with the full moon, which symbolizes the wholeness of family and a brighter future.

I grew up eating both the sweet and savory versions of tang yuan. Though with my sweet tooth growing up, the black sesame or crushed peanut dessert version was always what I got excited about; this is the version that most people eat and are aware of. You can even find them premade and frozen in most Asian supermarkets; they are easy to prepare, as all you have to do is plop the frozen balls in boiling water, and they’ll be done once they float up to the top. The downside of these, though, is there is often artificial flavors and ingredients in them, and who really wants that?

But what I have more vivid memories of is the savory version of tang yuan, either eaten during Lantern Festival or during the winter solstice. The Cantonese savory tang yuan version is plain glutinous rice balls dunked and cooked in a chicken, pork, and daikon fragrant broth, along with dried shrimp, sliced Chinese sausages, daikon, and sliced Napa cabbage. It was a comforting, soothing bowl of soup, and the umami-rich scent is unmistakable. It always reminded me of home every time my grandma or mom would make it; it’s a very home-style dish, one that you would never see on a restaurant menu. In my adult years, I’ve found out there’s an even more complex version of the savory tang yuan where the savory glutinous rice balls are stuffed with a meat filling – this sounds like even more intense work!

I think the sweet version of tang yuan is easier for those who don’t understand tang yuan or its meaning to get used to. And I love making them, even though they are a total pain given that manipulating glutinous rice flour dough is very challenging. It takes some practice to get the dough just right. Using cold water won’t do; you actually need a mix of boiling hot water and cold water to make the dough workable and pliable enough to form into a firm dough. I remember this from the days when I would make them with my grandma. She would always use boiling hot water to mix the glutinous rice flour dough, and somehow, her hands, which were very tough, could always handle the steaming heat. Once the dough cooled down enough, she’d let me help and cut small pieces of dough and roll them into nice, round balls. Once you have that part right, the next part is not allowing the dough to dry up too much to get crackly. And after THAT part has cleared, you need to make sure that the filling, whether it’s crushed peanut or black sesame, will be solid enough to not fly all over the place and actually properly get inserted into each dough ball, then seal them firmly shut. It’s a lot of finicky steps and finesse that’s required to get these things just right. But when you do get it right, it’s so satisfying: to take a bite into a sweet tang yuan is very luxurious. You know it’s right when you take your first bite into the ball, and the black sesame sugar filling oozes out like hot lava. It’s creamy, buttery, and nutty lusciousness. I made a second batch of tang yuan two days ago given my first dough batch from a couple weeks ago was a total mess, and I would say that the second time was a charm. I hadn’t made this in a few years, so I had gotten a bit rusty.

Tang yuan is a treasured dish, one that I hope Kaia will be able to appreciate soon. I tried to give her one I made the other day, and she kind of pushed the ball around her dinner tray and just thought the texture was fun and squishy. Only time will tell!

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