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When my friend Katherine came to visit me last year in Beijing last February, we spent almost her entire week-long vacation searching for tang yuan.
In its simplest form, tang yuan is comprised of chewy plain dumplings made from a little glutinous rice flour and water; these dumplings are rolled into balls and then served in a ladle of the water they’re boiled in, which is sweetened with sugar and, sometimes, given more life from a little ginger. In a slightly more complicated version, they can be stuffed with a salty-sweet peanut paste or earthy black sesame. Either way, the final product always reminds me, in the best possible way, of the instant hot chocolate of my childhood: The dumplings have the texture and subtle flavor of firm marshmallows, and the broth, which is thickened slightly with starch leached from the dumplings during cooking, has a mild sweetness bolstered by a toasty note of rice. It’s comforting and warming. It’s simple.
Katherine’s family is Taiwanese, and she can remember eating tang yuan frequently as a child. “My grandma was deeply religious," she tells me, "so she often made it as an offering. I got to eat it after it was blessed.” Her family would form the dumpling dough into long snakes, cut it into small sections, and then roll each section into something resembling a large marble. She remembers overstuffing her first attempts at black sesame dumplings, and adding a little food dye to stain some of the dumplings pink for the Lunar New Year.
The Lunar New Year and the subsequent Chunjie, or Spring Festival, is the biggest holiday celebration of the year in China. It starts on the first new moon between January 21st and February 20th, and it culminates on the fifteenth day (and full moon) of that lunar month, with Yuanxiao, or Lantern Festival. All told, festivities last a full two weeks, and during that period, the country witnesses one of the largest internal migrations in the world: most residents of Chinese cities travel home to be with their families for part or all of the holiday.
The festival is full of rites aimed at bringing in a new season: Chinese families thoroughly clean their homes in the lead-up to the holiday because they believe this sweeps away bad luck of the prior year. They buy new clothes and cut their hair before the New Year, as it’s considered bad fortune to cut hair on the holiday itself (the Chinese word for hair is a homonym for the Chinese word for prosperity). Elders give red envelopes filled with money to younger members of their families, and Buddhist families make offerings to the gods for harmony.
The food is symbolic, too: Fish is common on New Year’s Eve, because the Chinese word for fish sounds like the Chinese word for surplus. Dumplings are popular in the north, because they’re thought to usher in prosperity—the more dumplings you eat, the thinking goes, the richer you’ll be in the new year. There are longevity noodles, extra long and uncut.
And then there’s tang yuan, which makes a prominent appearance at Lantern Festival, the culmination of Spring Festival. Its activities include lighting lanterns of all shapes and sizes—symbolizing illuminating the future—and the lion dance, meant to ward off evil spirits. This night marks the end of New Year taboos like haircutting; in Beijing, it’s also the last night of the season on which fireworks are legal, so wandering the city means avoiding the men lighting extremely sophisticated explosives in flimsy-looking tin cans. Tang yuan is a crucial part of this holiday: Its round shape both mimics the full moon and symbolizes wholeness and togetherness. People dye the dumplings pink or red during the New Year holiday, because red symbolizes good fortune and joy.
Yuanxiao, the Chinese name for Lantern Festival, is an alternative name for these dumplings, and by some accounts, it’s also the original moniker. Amy Li, who was food editor at Beijing’s City Weekend, says people really only use yuanxiao these days to refer to the stuffed version of the dumpling (and furthermore, it seems that term is only popular in the northern part of China). The name of the dish changed to tang yuan, she says, sometime during the 15th century. “Following the fall of the Qing dynasty, Yuan Shikai declared himself emperor and didn’t like the name yuanxiao because yuan was his surname and one meaning of ‘xiao’ is to disappear,” she says. Saying yuanxiao, then, was suggestive of getting rid of the emperor. “So he forbade people from calling the little buggers yuanxiao, thus they had to start calling them tangyuan.”
Lantern Festival is the only time I saw tang yuan last year: I was working at the Beijing Farmers’ Market, and the women who run the shop associated with that market made a vat of the dessert to mark the occasion, sharing it with everyone who walked in the door. Because of the symbolism that ties the dumplings to togetherness, though, the dessert also makes it onto wedding and family reunion tables, and it’s integral in winter solstice feasts, which are traditionally events that gather families.
In the pre-mechanization era, it was an incredibly labor-intensive dish. You’d start by soaking glutinous rice overnight, and then you’d grind that rice by hand in a little water. Strain that mixture through cotton for a couple of days, and you’d finally get dough. Now, you can buy milled glutinous rice flour, which makes the process considerably easier. You can also buy frozen dumplings, filled or plain, in just about any Chinese market.
But it's hard to find on the streets of Beijing: Each day, Katherine would suggest another section of the city for us to comb, and we’d chase a lead she’d unearthed online. Her search took us down the packed alley of Nanluoguxiang, where tourists from other parts of China shell out cash for colorful trinkets and fried snacks. It took us to markets and bakeries, and to roadside stands, where ancient-looking purveyors tossed noodles with sauce, and dumped the mixture in a plastic bag before handing it over with chopsticks. It even took us to one of Beijing’s sleekest restaurants, where refined versions of Chinese sweets fill out the dessert menu. But we never found it— vendors’ stocks, it seemed, dried up when the fireworks ended.
As consolation, Katherine shared her family’s recipe for plain tang yuan, which is incredibly simple: Combine glutinous rice flour with water until it forms a barely sticky dough akin to mochi (a two-to-one ratio of flour to water is approximately correct); you can add red food dye to half the dough if you’re making this for the New Year. Roll the dough out into long, skinny snakes, and then cut each snake into approximately half-inch segments. Roll each segment into a dumpling about the size of a large marble.
Other makers say the northern and southern parts of China make filled dumplings differently from each other; the south wraps dough around filling, while the north forms the filling into a ball, and then shakes the small balls in a bamboo basket filled with dry glutinous rice flour, occasionally sprinkling water over the top, until the dumplings grow to a substantial size.
However you make them—and even if you just pick up a frozen tray of them at your local market—you should boil them in water until they float, and then sweeten the water with sugar and fresh ginger to taste.
Share them with your family and friends, and toast to your reunion to get the full effect.