汤圆 (tāng yuán) are glutinous rice balls stuffed with varying flavors of paste filling. It is a traditional Chinese dessert, a light yet tasty option for both festivals or for an after-meal desserts with family.
The History of Its Name
Did you know that these rice balls were not always called tang yuan? All the way back in the Yongle Era, it was called 元宵 (yuan xiao), meaning “first evening”. It was only modified later on because one emperor’s name was Yuan Shikai, and yuanxiao sounded like 袁消 (yuán xiāo), which implicated “removing Yuan” from power.
People still refer to Lantern Festival as "元宵节 (yuán xiāo jié)" and some people still call Tang Yuan by their more poetic name, "元宵 (yuán xiāo)"
The Lantern Festival, or 元宵節 (yuán xiāo jié), is celebrated on the 15th of the first lunar month and marks the the traditional day for families to eat tang yuan. This is the day of the first full moon in the Lunar New Year; hence, the traditional food for this holiday is the tang yuan, shaped round and white like the moon itself. On yuán xiāo jié, people engage in an entire day’s worth of fun activities, ranging from playing in Chinese games and riddles to setting off firecrackers. People will walk onto the streets with lanterns to see street performances such as the Lion or Dragon dance.
What It Tastes Like
Traditionally, tang yuan is white, but because people have started consuming the food year-round as a dessert, they now come in a wide variety of colors and fillings. There are typically two main styles: sweet or savory.
The most traditional fillings inside tang yuan are grounded sesame, crushed peanuts, or sweet bean paste. Besides those, people will sometimes use fruit preserves, sugarcane rock candy, walnuts, osmanthus flowers, rose petals, or jujube paste to create sweet pastes, which can be combined with other ingredients as well. Salty tang yuan is typically made with minced meat, vegetables, or a mixture of both.
How to Make Tang Yuan
There are two ways to make tang yuan. The first method, more commonly used in northern China, is placing round balls of the chosen paste into bamboo baskets with rice flour and rolling them around while continuously sprinkling water so that the flour sticks onto the paste. The second way is popular in southern provinces of China: using sticky rice flour to wrap the filling and then compressing them into balls. Alternatively, one may create small balls of sticky rice flour and make a hole to insert filling, then close the hole and smooth it out by rolling it in one’s hands. This method will create larger pieces than the first method.
The next step is to cook it. No baking, no frying, no microwaving! This dessert is actually cooked like how one would cook dumplings: through boiling water. Adding sugar into the water is optional; some people like to add ginger into the water. When the tang yuan start to float up while boiling, you know they are done and ready to be eaten. Serving tang yuan in bowls to match their round shape symbolizes family unity and harmony, and it is important to include the boiled water as a soup because that is how tang yuan is served.
There is the option to buy frozen tang yuan at Chinese supermarkets, which will usually come in colors such as pink or green. It’s convenient and easy to make, so be sure to try it out!