Rounding Out The Year With Tangyuan
Spring Festival marks that point in the cycle of the lunar calendar where one year ends and another one begins. In the past, it was customary in China for everybody to mark their birthday at the New Year, and for this reason, a special dumpling known as yuanxiao – which can be translated as ‘first night’ – are traditionally eaten during this time. Yuanxiao are spheres of glutinous rice dough filled with sweet or savory mixtures of preserved fruits, beans, nuts and spices.
Here in Beijing, yuanxiao are made from rice dough that is usually quite thick and tough, while the filling is dry. In most other places in China, yuanxiao are known as tangyuan, which literally means ‘soup ball’ and refers to the cooking method of boiling the balls in plenty of water. Coincidentally, the name tangyuan sounds similar to tuanyuan, which means ‘a family reunion.’ The spherical shape of the sweet snack also symbolizes completeness, adding to the auspiciousness of the food.
Nowadays, yuanxiao are eaten all year round as a sweet snack or dessert. Each region of China claims its own way of serving it. For example, the Sichuanese serve theirs with rice wine, and in Shanghai, leisha tangyuan, or ‘soup dumplings in sand,’ are popular. Filled with red bean paste, the cooked tangyuan are rolled in browned soy flour, which resembles sand, and are served dry. The tangyuan eaten most commonly today are Ningbo-style, which can usually be found in the frozen food section of Chinese supermarkets around the world. These are filled with a sweet paste – made of ground black sesame seeds, sugar, and lard – which oozes out of the glutinous rice dough casing when you bite into it.
It is remarkably easy to make yuanxiao at home. You can get creative and hide all manner of things inside the glutinous rice dough, such as jams, fresh pieces of fruit, or even chocolate. In Guangdong, fillings are made from red beans, green beans, taro, winter melon, black and white sesame seeds, lotus seeds, walnuts and more. The possibilities for fillings are truly endless. Alternately, you can do away with the filling altogether and serve tiny, pearl-like pieces of the rice dough in a soup of fermented glutinous rice grains and sugar. This dish, called jiuniang tangyuan,needs only a swirl of beaten egg and a dollop of osthmanthus honey to be impressive at your next family gathering.
1/2 cup glutinous rice flour; best to use Dongfang Pai Tangyuan Fen, readily available in supermarkets
4tbsp cold water
3tbsp red bean paste, or dousha xian
Water for boiling
Brown sugar to taste
Sift the glutinous rice flour into a bowl. Make a crater in the center and pour in some of the cold water. Slowly mix the water and flour, gradually adding in the rest of the water. Use your fingers to gather the mixture into a sticky dough. You can knead the dough a few times to mix the flour and water thoroughly. The dough should be wet but not too sticky, and should peel easily off the hands.
To make tangyuan without filling, simply break off small pieces of the dough and roll into balls about one centimeter in diameter. These are ready for boiling. Some people like to add red food coloring to the dough, especially during Spring Festival, as red is an auspicious color.
To make tangyuan with filling, break off some of the dough and roll into a ball about two centimeters in diameter. Press flat in your palm to form a thick disk. Gently pinch the edges of the disk so that they are considerably thinner than the center.
Roll some red bean paste into a ball about 1/2 centimeter in diameter. Place this in the center of the disk of dough and fold the edges over. Gently shape the dough into a sphere with your hands. Don’t be too greedy with the filling, as the glutinous rice dough will break during cooking if your tangyuan are too full.
Using a deep pot, bring a generous amount of water to a boil and place the tangyuan into the water. The tangyuan will sink to the bottom at first; be sure to stir gently so they don’t stick to the bottom of the pot. When they start to float to the surface, it means that they are cooked through. It is best to continue boiling for about five minutes more, however, to ensure that the filling is hot. Serve immediately in plain cooking water, or add brown sugar to give color and flavor.