Chinese new year is a 15 days ordeal. In current times you get 3-5 days off, depending on where you work. Way back somewhen I think there are 15 solid days of celebrations each day with some different activity. Like the 7th day is birthday of all human, so you treat it like a birthday and have a great meal. (which is the Chinese answer to anything worth celebrating) On the 15th and last day of the celebration of the first full moon, or Lantern Festival, or Chinese Valentine’s Day, or Yuan Xiao Jie (元宵節), is the traditional name.
There is a variety of how you celebrate it, you know, other than a big meal. A non-food tradition is to go see some beautiful lanterns, I think is where the Chinese Valentine thing came from. Imagine this, (or check out this flickr search of photos) thousands of colourful lanterns hanging in one area, some of them have fun riddles or poems on them. You, as a young gentleman or lady who don’t normally meet the other person of the opposite sex eligible for some romance, bump into each other while tackling a particular clever riddle. … sorry I am shit at describing this scene for you. Anyway. Lantern festival, pretty looking. Check out the photo link. Moving on…
Growing up, this is the day you get together with your family and eat a nice bowl of glutinous rice balls, aka TangYuan (湯圓). There are some variety of this as well, sometimes they are just little balls made out of glutinous rice flour (think Mochi, as it seems to be more commonly known) in a sweet broth. Most of the times, there is a sweet filling inside the balls. Peanut, red bean, a piece of cane sugar, or my favourite, black sesame. (or white sesame, equally good). The round shape of the rice ball is a symbol of the moon, which also is a symbol for “togetherness”, and according to Wiki, a homophone of the word for togetherness. Very clever.
I have never made this from scratch before. Because… well, you can find these in Asian grocery stores frozen with different flavours. All you have to do is cook them up in a saucepan and they are really good just like that. This year, I’ve decided to give this a go just to prove I can do them traditional sweets.
A few pointers: (with examples of some of the balls that didn’t make it in one piece)
- The most difficult bit is wrapping the filling up with your glutinous rice dough. I thought it would be like dumplings what you do is make your dough really thin … don’t do it. You need a certain amount of structure integrity for the dough to hold once it cooks. Most of my rice balls were broken after cooking and the filling leaked into the broth and it isn’t very nice looking. So sad.
- In the photos below you see I have corn starched the work surface, this was based on experience I had with making mochi. The process is a bit different because you cook up your mochi dough before filling it. The mochi dough is incredibly sticky and need cornstarch to stay off your hands and any surface it touches. The dough we are using in here is mostly raw so it doesn’t stick quite as much. Like any dough if you add extra flour it WILL dry out. And hence you can see my rice balls ended up cracking. So don’t do that. Advice from my God-mom who is way more experience in this than I am: if you must dust anything, use glutinous rice flour and nothing else so it won’t change the texture of the dough.
- I have also been told I was too generous with my filling. I should have put less in. It is all part of an adventure right?! 😀
For the Filling
65g Black Sesame/White Sesame/Peanuts
75g Lard or Butter, softened
1. Lightly toast the sesame on a frying pan. Shake often and until seeds are aromatic. If using peanuts, just buy them roasted and unsalted in grocery stores.
2. Put sesame seeds and sugar into a food processor (or you can mortar and pestle it). The sugar help with keeping the sesame dryer than when you grind just the seeds alone but still keep an eye on it. Grind it to as fine as you like, I like the sesame to be a bit smoother but peanut to be chunkier. If you do happen to grind it into a paste, you can probably cut down on the lard/butter.
3. Mix the softened fat in with the ground mixture. Then, pick up a bit of it in your hand and roll into little balls. Your final product will be about 20-30% bigger than your filling ball. Once finished, let chill in fridge.
**You can use either butter or lard. Lard is traditional, but all there is to it, is that you have a fat that is creamy enough to be in a mixture but once chilled, will set solid. You can adjust the amount of fat you use. All you need is for it to bind the filling together and also once cooked, will turn liquid so you have a nice runny centre.
For the rice flour dough
300g Glutinous Rice Flour
210g Hot Water (needs to be hot enough to make a cup of tea)
1. The ratio of flour to water is 1:0.7 if using hot water. In a large bowl, pour hot water into the flour and mix immediately. It will start off very lumpy but keep mixing. Once it is cool enough to handle you can knead it a bit till you have a smooth dough, it should stick minimally. There is also an option of using cold water but the ratio is different and you go through different steps, so stick with hot water.
2. Once you have a nice smooth dough, pinch a small ball of dough, roll it into a ball in your hand. Then, with your thumbs, press the ball down in the middle to make a flat circle. Take your cold filling ball and wrap the dough around it. Fasten the dough with a little twist on the bottom.
3. Once you have finish making all your balls. You can put them into the fridge, or freezer until you are ready to cook them. If you freeze them, they don’t need to be defrosted.
To Cook the final product
Any type of sugar, Chinese rock sugar and Chinese brown sugar in the shape of a plank is traditional. But any sugar would do and as sweet or not sweet as you want it.
A couple slices of Ginger (optional, but is what I like)
1. I know I am being very vague about the water. The balls will start off on the bottom of the pan, you need enough water for you to see they float up as they cook. So double the depth of covering the balls I guess? The amount of sugar and ginger changes depending on how many balls you are cooking and how sweet you like this broth.
2. Put the rice balls into boiling sweet broth. They will start off on the bottom of the pan and as they cook, they will float to the top. Once all cooked, turn off the heat. Ladle some broth and rice balls into a bowl and serve. Warning: THE FILLING IS LIQUID AND HOT, BE CAREFUL!!!