What Is Tangyuan?

Lakshmi Sandhana

A very popular dessert in China, tangyuan consists of filled or unfilled balls made with glutinous rice flour. These chewy dumplings are a very popular snack and are eaten in great numbers during festivals. They are traditionally served during the Lantern Festival and Dong Zhi, which marks the coming of winter. Also served during the Chinese New Year, tangyuan can be found with a wide variety of exotic fillings. Mass-produced versions of this dessert can also be found in the frozen food sections of supermarkets in some parts of Asia.

Azuki beans, which are used to make a filling for tangyuan.
Azuki beans, which are used to make a filling for tangyuan.

The word itself translates as round balls in soup and was earlier known as yuanxiao. According to legend, this name was changed to tangyuan because the word roughly sounded like "remove yuan." The ruler in the early 1910s was called Yuan Shikai, so the change was made to avoid offense. This dessert is still called by its original name in some parts of northern China.

Tangerines may be used as an exotic filling in tangyuan.
Tangerines may be used as an exotic filling in tangyuan.

This traditional food has a lot of significance for many Chinese. For many, it represents happiness and symbolizes family togetherness. The rotund shape of the dumplings and the bowls in which they are served are thought to have contributed to its significance. Normally eaten together with family members, this once festive food is a daily dessert for many Chinese, both locally and abroad.

Made from a gummy dough comprised of glutinous rice flour, this dessert is also served up as an offering to the gods. While it is typically consumed with a sugary syrup, it may also be found in soup and eaten as part of the main course. Filled rice balls may have either sweet or savory fillings. The different types of sweet fillings found are chopped peanuts with sugar, sugarcane rock candy, and osmanthus flowers. The most common sweet filling is sesame paste made with black sesame seeds, sugar, and lard.

Cashew nuts, chestnuts, pecans, and almonds can be used instead of sesame. The nuts are roasted, ground, and mixed with sugar and lard to make the filling. Bean pastes like red azuki are also popular. Some exotic fillings include rose petals, jujube paste, and tangerine peel that has been sweetened. Savory tangyuan is made with fillings like pork or other types of minced meat or vegetables or a mixture of the two.

It can be easily made at home in less than half an hour. The dough is made by mixing water with glutinous rice flour and regular rice flour. Cooks knead the mixture until the dough becomes less sticky.

Colorful tangyuans are made by separating the dough into portions and adding a little food coloring to each portion. The cook kneads each piece until the coloring is evenly distributed. Then, he or she shapes the dough into balls of the desired size. At this stage, the cook adds fillings, introducing some into each little ball.

Next, the cook drops the dumplings in a vessel containing boiling water. In around five minutes or more, the balls will float to the surface. This indicates that they are cooked. The cooked dumplings are removed, dumped into cool water, and drained after a while. They are then ready to be served in a sweet hot syrup made of brown sugar or rock candy and ginger.

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