Tang yuan, or Chinese glutinous rice balls, can be served in soup (sweet or savoury) or fried. They also come plain or with filling inside so, as you can see, it is a very versatile and easy dish!
What is Tang Yuan?
It is a traditional Chinese food made of glutinous rice flour balls. They are most commonly boiled then eaten in a sweet soup, but sometimes also in a savoury soup or deep fried.
You might find them plain (with no filling) or with sesame paste or peanuts inside them.
Glutinous rice contains no gluten so the traditional version is naturally gluten free and vegan. (Some modern variations might have weird things added so check before eating.)
Outside of China
If you are in Singapore and want to eat tang yuan, note that they are also called ahballing locally.
I focus on the Chinese version of glutinous rice ball dumplings here, but it is actually an Asian dessert as there is a variation of it in almost every South East Asian country.
For example, the Thai version, Bua Loy, uses a coconut milk soup, sometimes mixed with yam whilst the Vietnamese version is filled with mung bean and in ginger soup.
IMPORTANT: Glutinous rice flour dishes are so sticky, they can get stuck in one's throat if not chewed well (and suffocate you) so CHEW CAREFULLY.
In Japan, people are rushed to hospital (and even die) from eating mochi every year so care should be taken, especially for the very young or old.
Tang yuan is actually a modern, 20th century name for this Chinese dish.
Originally, these glutinous rice ball dumplings were called "yuan xiao" (元宵) which means first evening. This reflects the fact that there is always a new moon on Yuan Xiao jie (the Lantern Festival, which is when these glutinous rice dumplings are traditionally eaten.)
However, it is said that in the early 1900s, Yuan Shikai ordered the name to be changed as "yuan xiao" sounded like "removal of Yuan" so this Chinese snack is now called "tang yuan"- literally "soup round!"
Fun fact: some people use the 2 names- tang yuan vs yuan xiao- to distinguish whether it's prepared in the Southern (former) or Northern style (latter).
When to Eat
I enjoy eating tang yuan at any time of the year but these glutinous rice ball dumplings are actually associated with specific festivals.
The most traditional would be the Lantern festival (Yuan Xiao Jie, which is the last day of Chinese New Year).
However, due to the fact that the name of this Asian dessert sounds like "reunion" in Chinese (glutinous rice balls are "tang yuan" and reunion is "tuan yuan"), they are now also served at weddings, family gatherings, the winter solstice (冬至 dongzhi) and over Chinese New Year. (Usually on the eve, the 7th day (RenRi or everyone's birthday) or the last day (the 15th day of CNY, which is tomorrow!)
If you're wondering why at weddings, it's to symbolise the union of the couple- together forever- and maybe also because the Lantern festival is linked to romance (more on this below).
For a traditional meal, have tang yuan with this Chicken Feet Soup!
Chinese Lantern Festival
Since ancient times, Chinese people have been celebrating the Lantern Festival (Yuan Xiao Jie) by carrying lanterns on the 15th day of the lunar new year.
I remember doing this with my paternal grandparents when they were still alive. It was great fun! 1 or 2 lanterns inevitably catch fire, which is part of the excitement!
The Lantern Festival is traditionally associated with love and romance- probably because it was 1 of the few days that young Chinese females could leave the house! There are more stories behind this Chinese festival but I won't bore you here- click the link if you want to find out more.
Random: did you know that the Chinese word for Comfort/ Safety (an) is literally a symbol of a female staying indoors/ in a house? How patriarchal!
Traditionally, these glutinous rice balls were served white, but modern fusion styles have led to wildly coloured ones, with chocolate flavour (brown), black sesame (black), pandan flavour (green, shown below, popular in South East Asia), sweet potato (orange or purple) and so on.
For plain tang yuan with no filling
You will need only 2-3 ingredients, namely:
- glutinous rice flour
- optional: food colouring or flavouring such as pandan, pumpkin puree, sweet potato, matcha powder, cocoa powder etc
Some people add some sugar to this glutinous rice dough, but as we are serving the tang yuan in a sweet soup, I find it overkill. Too much sugar is bad!
For Filled Tang Yuan
In addition to the ingredients above, you will also need whatever you want to put inside.
This could be:
- black sesame paste (hei zhi ma)
- peanuts (hua sheng)
- sweet red bean paste (hong dou)
- gula melaka or palm sugar (a Singaporean and Malaysian version)
- chocolate, my favourite!
I will update the recipe with directions for glutinous rice balls with fillings at a later date as I want to get this post published before the Lantern Festival which is, well, actually today since it's now 12.42 am.
For the Sweet Soup Base
The basic ingredients for the ginger soup are:
- brown sugar
- slices of ginger
For something fancier, other variations of the sweet syrup for tang yuan include:
- dried osmanthus flowers (which is used to make gui hua cha osmanthus tea) or osmanthus sugar
- gula melaka and pandan (this is obviously a South east Asian version as these 2 ingredients are abundant in the region. For more pandan recipes, click here.)
- longan soup (You can use the longan tea recipe here but remember to add sugar!)
Some people like to have their tang yuan savoury- either in a soup or with minced meat inside. As that glutinous rice ball is very different from this sweet one (which is more of an Asian dessert), I will save that recipe for a separate post!
Note: if you like the taste of osmanthus, you may enjoy this gui hua gao recipe
How to Cook
The soup tang yuan are super easy to make - simple boil them- but the coated dry ones are usually deep fried to make them crispy. (This style is more popular in Southern China and South East Asia.)
I prefer the dry style to the soupy version but since frying is unhealthy, have decided to simply boil mine, then roll them in ground roasted peanuts (or toasted sesame), as shown in the photo above- rather similar to muah chee, but with a filling inside and round in shape (muah chee is softer and more free form.)
Remember to drain the tang yuan before coating (or frying!), if not the coating will not be crunchy! (And if you put a wet tang yuan into hot oil, it may splatter like crazy and burn you badly.)
How to Store
The glutinous rice dough will harden in the fridge. Make sure to keep any extra tang yuan in liquid and refrigerated for no more than 1-2 days.
How to Freeze
Frozen tang yuan is sold in Asian supermarkets but, since it's so easy to make these sweet Asian desserts at home, why not make a big batch for the lunar new year then freeze the extras?
These 2 different types of tang yuan literally took me a few minutes to whip up- the longest process was boiling them, which was about 3-4 minutes.
They last for a few months in the freezer. If you're worried about the glutinous rice balls sticking to each other , freeze them with space in between each for 10-20 minutes after which they can be jumbled up in a ziplock bag.
Alternatively, you can lightly dust them with some cornstarch, but I prefer not to do so.
- As there's no gluten in the glutinous rice flour, don't worry about over-working the dough.
- With Western desserts, you have to keep the proportions exact. To be honest, I barely other to measure the water when I made tang yuan! If the dough is too dry, I add more hot water and, if it's sticky, I knead more glutinous rice flour in! Never failed me to date!
- If you want the tang yuan to be coloured, I recommend natural food colouring instead of chemical/ aritficial. You can use turmeric powder, beetroot powder, matcha powder or pandan juice (click the link for a homemade recipe.)
- When making plain tang yuan, I recommend making each ball smaller- if not it will be a big mouthful of plain flour which can be bland.
- The fillings can be prepared the day before so you don't have to rush when making tang yuan.
- Some people cheat with the peanut filling by using peanut butter- I won't judge but, if you do, remember to use a pure nut butter that doesn't contain shortening and what-not!
- Make a fresh bowl of soup- do not add sugar to the water you boiled the glutinous rice balls in! The starches will have bled into the water and made it cloudy and too thick.
The same way you do regular tang yuan- there's no need to defrost. You may need a few minutes more to fully cook them (they're done when they float.) Don't forget to keep stirring so they don't stick to the pot, as well as to not add too many (as they will expand.)
Other Chinese New Year Recipes
Glutinous rice balls soup (Plain tang yuan in soup)
Plain tang yuan
- 1 C glutinous rice flour do not substitute with all purpose or rice flour! You will not get the same texture. You could try mochiko flour as an alternative.
- ½ C WARM water The water has to be warm or the dough will be dry and hard and crack. If the dough is too dry, add more warm water teaspoon by teaspoon. If it's sticky, add more glutinous rice flour. For a green pandan flavoured version, replace warm water with warm pandan juice. If you don't have pandan juice, add a few drops of pandan extract to the warm water above BEFORE mixing it with the glutinous rice flour. If you add the pandan extract to the dough (after mixing the flour and water, you may end up with a marbled green glutinous dumpling.)
Coloured tang yuan: add these to glutinous rice flour and warm water (not pandan juice!)
- ⅛ teaspoon tumeric powder (golden) Substitute: turmeric paste. Use sparingly as turmeric is strong
- ½ teaspoon pure cocoa powder (brown)
- ½ teaspoon beetroot powder (pink) Substitute: beetroot juice
- ½ teaspoon matcha powder (green)
- ½ teaspoon charcoal powder (black) Maybe only for non-Chinese New Year days, or if you want a contrarian CNY party!
Tang yuan with filling (Black Sesame or peanut)
- To be updated
Tang yuan with Ginger Soup
- 3 C Water
- 2 thumb sized Ginger, sliced Don't bother peeling if you're lazy. if you don't have enough ginger, cut your slices more thinly to make the flavour come out more.
- Brown sugar, to taste
Tang yuan with Osmanthus soup
- 3 C Water
- Dried Osmanthus Flowers, to taste I usually go for 7-8g as I like the flavour strong. You can use less if adding osmanthus sugar.
- Rock sugar or osmanthus sugar Substitute: brown sugar, white sugar or osmanthus syrup
- For the plain tang yuan: Mix the glutinous rice flour with the warm water. If you're making flavoured/ coloured tang yuan, add some of the suggested natural colourings in the ingredients list above.
- Make sure it's not too hot (so you don't burn yourself) then knead with your hands. If the dough is too sticky, add more glutinous rice flour. If too dry and hard, add more warm water teaspoon by teaspoon.
- Separate the dough into equal sized pieces, then roll between the palms of your hands to form balls. Don't place them too close to each other or they'll stick
- Bring water to the boil- when at a rolling boil, add the glutinous rice balls. Don't overcrowd the pot as they expand in the boiling water! Keep stirring or they'll stick to the bottom of the pot. They're cooked when they float (took me 3-4 minutes).
Making the sweet ginger soup
- Add the ginger to the water and boil for 20 minutes or till spicy enough for you. Stir in the brown sugar then switch off the fire.
- Add the cooked tang yuan in and serve.
Other sweet tang yuan soup
- Ginger, longan and red date soup: use my dried longan tea recipe with brown sugar.
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