Tangyuan or tang yuan is a Chinese dessert made from glutinous rice flour mixed with a small amount of water to form balls and then cooked and served in boiling water or sweet syrup (sweet ginger syrup, for example). Tangyuan can be either small or large, and filled or unfilled. They are traditionally eaten during Yuanxiao or the Lantern Festival, but also served as a dessert on Chinese wedding day, Winter Solstice Festival, and any occasions such as family reunion, because of a homophone for union.
Historically, a number of different names were used to refer to tangyuan. During the Yongle era of the Ming Dynasty, the name was officially settled as yuanxiao (derived from the Yuanxiao Festival), which is used in northern China. This name literally means “first evening”, being the first full moon after Chinese New Year, which is always a new moon.
In southern China, however, they are called tangyuan. Legend has it that during Yuan Shikai’s rule from 1912 to 1916, he disliked the name yuanxiao because it sounded identical to “remove Yuan”, and so he gave orders to change the name to tangyuan. This new moniker literally means “round balls in soup”. Tangyuan similarly means “round dumplings in the soup”. In the Hakka and Cantonese varieties of Chinese, “tangyuan” is pronounced as tong rhen and tong jyun respectively. The term “tangtuan” (Hakka: tong ton, Cantonese: tong tyun) is not as commonly used in these varieties as tangyuan.
This type of glutinous rice flour dumpling is eaten in both northern and southern China. The fillings consist of sweet fillings such as sugar, sesame, osmanthus flowers, sweet bean paste and sweetened tangerine peel are used.
For many Chinese families in mainland China as well as overseas, tangyuan is usually eaten together with family. The round shape of the balls and the bowls where they are served, come to symbolise the family togetherness.
While tangyuan was originally a food eaten during festivals, it has become a dessert consumed year-round rather than simply a festival food. For instance, tangyuan is traditionally in white color. Yet, in order to cater to consumers’ needs and changing tastes, dessert specialty shops create new flavors or colors of tangyuan by substituting the traditional filling with chocolate, mashed potato and pumpkin paste. Thus, tangyuan has already evolved into a dessert that is consumed by Chinese from time to time throughout the year and is no longer limited to festivals. In both filled and unfilled tangyuan, the main ingredient is glutinous rice flour. For filled tangyuan, the filling can be either sweet or savoury. Northern variations mix sesame, peanuts, sweet bean paste and place them into bamboo baskets with rice flour, sprinkle water continuously on the rice flour to form the fillings and form round balls. Southern variations are typically larger, and are made by wrapping the filling into sticky rice flour wrapping and scrunching them into balls.
Sweet fillings can be:
- Chocolate paste (softened butter mixed with cocoa powder and stirred until blended)
- A piece of cut sugarcane rock candy
- Fruit preserves
- Sesame paste (ground black sesame seeds mixed with sugar and lard) – the most common filling
- Red bean paste (Azuki bean paste)
- Chopped peanuts (or peanut butter) and sugar
Tangyuan are first cooked in boiling water. Once cooked, savoury filled tangyuan are served in a clear soup broth, whilst sweet filled tangyuan are served in a ginger infused syrup.
Unfilled tangyuan are served as part of a sweet dessert soup (known in Cantonese cuisine as tang shui, which literally means “sugar water”). Common types include:
- Red bean soup
- Black sesame soup
- Ginger and rock sugar
- Fermented glutinous rice, Sweet Osmanthus and rock sugar.
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