It’s a brisk February day, and the kitchen is covered in rice flour. My Taiwanese grandmother is standing on the old fiberboard pineapple cake box she uses to reach her stovetop. As her boiling pot begins to steam, magic floats to the surface: tang yuan—soft, doughy rice balls bobbing and swaying in a sugary soup.
Every winter, I buzz with anticipation for the final day of the Lunar New Year, when tang yuan is traditionally eaten, awaiting the moment when the entire family joins in with sticky, dough-coated hands to roll the sweet dumplings.
To make tang yuan, glutinous flour is mixed with oil and water to form a supple, pliable dough. The dough is stretched into a snaking log, clipped into small pieces, rolled into spherical perfection, boiled in water and then plunged into a steaming, saccharine soup. Tang yuan may be served plain in a translucent stock. Or, the dumplings can be supplemented with a variety of fillings, from taro to peanut butter, and the soup served with sweet fermented rice and fragrant osmanthus flowers. Traditionally, the rice balls are filled with black sesame and simmered in a brown-sugar and ginger broth.
Fifteen days of Lunar New Year celebrations reach their climactic end with the Yuanxiao (Lantern) Festival, an observation of the burgeoning spring season and the first full moon of the new year. On this last day of festivity, tang yuan fill the bowls of Asian households worldwide, the white, spherical desserts serving as edible representations of the moon shining overhead. Translating to “soup ball,” tang yuan signifies togetherness and familial gathering, says Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, author of A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family. The Lunar New Year fixture is linked to the playfully similar-sounding Chinese phrase “tuan yuan” (“reunion”) and accompanying lucky saying “tuan tuan yuan yuan,” meaning reunion after separation. According to Tan, eating tang yuan is believed to project prosperity and good fortune into the new year, each silky dumpling a concentrated drop of auspiciousness.
“The food carries a lot of superstition,” says Tan. “The way my mom explained it was: You should eat it because it’s sweet, which brings you well-tidings, and it’s round, which symbolizes unity. It wasn’t so much about the flavor. It was more about the symbolism.”
The history of tang yuan
Don’t be fooled by tang yuan’s simple exterior, though. The dessert bursts with rich flavor, complex texture and millennia of meaning. Tang yuan is believed to have originated as a snack in China during the Song dynasty (960-1279 C.E.), emerging from the coastal plains of the city of Ningbo, known then as Mingzhou. In its early form, tang yuan was a glutinous rice ball packed with a mixture of lard, black sesame and white sugar. The treat’s folklore—and deep associations with family—stretches back to the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.), according to Ava Chin, author of Mott Street: A Chinese American Family’s Story of Exclusion and Homecoming. The ancient capital of Xi’an, home of the illustrious terracotta warriors, forms the backdrop of the legend, Chin explains. A young palace servant by the name of Yuan Xiao, disconnected from her family and alone in the city, is overwhelmed with anxiety. One of her friends from court, Dongfang Shuo, enacts a plan to lift her spirits. “He drums up a rumor to the emperor that the fire god is going to set the city on fire if he isn’t appeased,” says Chin. “Since the god’s favorite food is tang yuan, the friend advises the emperor that the entire city should make them, led by the servant girl.” The townspeople also “light lanterns and firecrackers to make the city seem as if it was already ablaze,” says Chin. And, as the city rallies together, Yuan Xiao’s family travels to join her tang yuan-making efforts in a powerful reunion.
“Like any good legend that is thousands of years old, there are many different versions of the story,” adds Chin, who teaches creative writing and journalism at the City University of New York. But the heart of the tale remains the same: a young girl, spurred to make tang yuan to save the city, is pulled out of despair and rejoined with her family. Each year since, tang yuan has been the staple dish of Yuan Xiao’s eponymous festival. “The Lantern (Yuanxiao) Festival provides a signal that seasonal changes are coming and the long darkness of winter will soon be over,” says Chin. In northern and central China, many families eat a version of tang yuan called yuanxiao, subtly differentiated by its filling and production methods. Yuanxiao is packed with a coarse, nutty filling, as opposed to the ground, smooth center of tang yuan, and rolled in a flat basket caked with rice flour rather than by hand.
Upholding these cultural food traditions has, historically, been crucial for Chinese American families amid periods of social and political ostracization, says Chin. Whether during the Gold Rush in the 1840s or the construction of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s, Chinese immigrants, populating small Chinatowns in California, along the West Coast, and deep into states such as Idaho and Wyoming, were pushed to the peripheries in the face of marginalization and rampant anti-Chinese sentiments. “You have these Chinatowns that emerge, oftentimes at the same moment in time when Western frontier towns are starting to form, and because Chinese folks were often excluded from white society, they really continued to maintain a lot of culture,” says Chen. “They needed to rely on themselves. [So], you get these Chinese Americans in the 19th century where every New Year is still a cause for celebration.”
The practice of making tang yuan helps to maintain tight-knit communities, but it can also spur unity across oceans and generations. Tan, who was born in Singapore and immigrated to the United States for college, says she takes advantage of the calm ritual of making tang yuan to connect with her native Singaporean aunts and grandmothers and unearth long-buried family tales. “In the kitchen, when you’re rolling tang yuan, that’s when they’re going to tell you the stories,” says Tan. “Because they were doing something with their hands and sitting still, they would share their thoughts with me in a very organic way. We weren’t just making food together. We were really bonding—and they were sharing their memories with me.”
A dessert for all seasons
For San Francisco-based chef Kevin Lee, tang yuan is a nostalgic staple in his Hong Kong street-food-inspired restaurant, the Night Market. Lee follows his grandmother’s traditional recipe to create what he deems the “ultimate balance,” the light tang of the ginger soup cutting through the thick gluten of the rice balls. Though some use vegetable oil to supplement their tang yuan filling, Lee is a traditionalist, delicately crushing his black sesame with lard to create a gooey filling that spills out of its white shell.
“For me, eating tang yuan is like having a dessert in two parts: as a dessert as a whole, and as almost a ritual, in a procedural way—a way to really savor the moment,” says Lee. “As a grandson, I fully took for granted the luxury of my grandmother’s treats. When I built [my] restaurant, it was only right to include tang yuan as one of the more traditional desserts any of our guests could have after a meal, or just on a cold night.”
Lee says that while his customers order tang yuan all year long, bigger crowds than usual flood in during the Lunar New Year season, when eating the dumplings as a main dish rather than a dessert is common. Tang yuan demand is typically greater in the winter, in general, and wanes slightly in the summer, according to Lee. But interest never disappears entirely, especially as the chef employs slight alterations—such as submerging the tang yuan in fresh coconut milk and sago pearls rather than a warm soup—to give the dish a refreshing twist in hotter months.
Connecting the dish to Chinese medicinal values of dispersing inner heat, Lee says eating tang yuan is beneficial in all seasons, hot and cold. In chillier settings, the piping dessert nourishes the body’s “qi,” energy, by promoting blood flow, while in warmer settings, it forces sweat from the body to regulate internal temperature, according to Lee.
The dessert is also traditionally eaten during the Dongzhi Festival, says Yu-Jen Chen, a cultural food historian at National Taiwan Normal University. Also known as the Winter Solstice, the holiday marks the shortest day of the year and the changing of the tide from “yin,” cold, dark energy, to “yang,” light, warm energy. According to Chen, the Winter Solstice was intimately linked to rural society. Ancient Taiwanese farmers believed that the weather during the solstice would influence the forecast for the entire year, so families would stick tang yuan to their doors and windows on the holiday as “a prayer for blessings” to ancient gods and ancestors.
In fact, tang yuan crops up at celebrations throughout the year—anniversaries, reunions, birthdays. It is believed that newly married couples should eat tang yuan on their wedding day for a prosperous and fruitful union. White tang yuan are the norm, but add some dye, and the rice balls take on even more meaning. Yellow tang yuan, for instance, represents wealth, while eating blue tang yuan is said to aid one’s career. “My mom doesn’t like all of them to be white, because that’s the color of death, so she’ll dye a few of them pink for good luck,” says Tan. No matter the color or occasion, tang yuan provide a consistent jolt of warmth and fortune.
“Now you can eat it all year round,” says Tan. “You can go into dessert shops in Singapore and you can always have tang yuan. If you feel like you need a dose of luck and sweetness, you can just go ahead and get some.”
I beg my grandmother to make tang yuan with me every time I see her. Her version is still my favorite: plain, filling-less white rice balls in a simple brown-sugar soup. Her tang yuan vary in size—likely due to my brother and I haphazardly racing to see who can roll the most dough balls to pass along before she begins boiling her next careful batch—but I can always depend on their familiar, nostalgic taste. Crowded around the kitchen island with my parents, aunt and brother, a mist of rice flour and steam dancing around us, making tang yuan always feels like reunion, regardless of the season.
Kevin Lee’s Tang Yuan Recipe
- 1/2 cup black/white sesame mix (raw, to be toasted)
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1/2 cup lard
- 1 cup glutinous rice flour
- 1/2 cup warm water
- 2 cups water
- 1 slab of brown cane sugar
- 4 slices of ginger (cut into strips)
How to make tang yuan
Step 1: Prepare the black sesame filling. Weigh out a ratio of raw black sesame and raw white sesame. The black and white sesame blend is to gather the best of both worlds—the nuttiness from the black and the sweetness of the white. Place the sesame mix on a tray and toast in the oven.
Step 2: Grind the toasted sesame seeds and brown sugar in a blender slowly. Then, mix in the special Chinese ingredient, lard, to form a paste. Cover and place in the freezer for five to ten minutes. Keep the sesame paste refrigerated until filling the tang yuan.
Step 3: Prepare the dough by combining glutinous sweet rice flour with water, gradually adding water until a soft and pliable dough forms. Divide the dough into small portions and flatten each portion to form a circle. Place a three-finger amount of black sesame filling in the center of each dough circle, then carefully encompass and roll into a smooth ball. Continue until you have a tray of tang yuan.
Step 4: When ready to serve, boil a pot of water and cook the tang yuan until they float to the surface. Pull them out. We do single portions at a time to keep the tang yuan fresh for each serving.
How to make ginger tang sui (soup)
Step 1: Chop large ginger slices.
Step 2: Combine the brown cane sugar slab with water to make a brown sugar cane soup. Add the ginger slices.
Step 3: Bring it to a boil and then turn to low heat to keep warm.
Step 4: Place three tang yuan in a bowl and add a large ladle of brown sugar ginger soup.