Tang yuan (glutinous rice balls)

Tang yuan is a traditional Chinese dessert which is well loved by all generations. They’re basically glutinous rice balls (either filled or unfilled) that are served in a sweet broth. They’re most popular during the winter solstice (Dongzhi festival) – usually celebrated in December (it was on the 22nd last year), and symbolizes the day in the year where the day is the shortest. After this celebration, the Chinese believe that the days will be filled with more hours of sunlight, and therefore and increase in the amount of positive energy. In addition, eating these during the winter solstice also symbolizes becoming a year older. (I choose to ignore this last fact, because if I truly age a year everytime I eat tang yuan, I would cringe to think how old I am now…)

Besides eating these during the winter solstice, tang yuan are also made on special celebrations (such as Chinese New Year) and used as an offering to the gods. They are also served during weddings, where I was told (a long time ago by one of my aunts) that it is considered good luck for the bride and groom to not chew on the tang yuan when eating them – i.e. it is better if you swallow them whole. Now, this is easier said than done as these little babies are seriously sticky!

There are many variants of tang yuan, and as I mentioned earlier they can be either filled or unfilled. The unfilled tang yuans tend to be smaller in size (I’m not sure why), and also tend to be more colourful. The fillings for tang yuan vary – popular fillings are black sesame paste, peanut paste and red bean paste.  The tang yuan are then cooked in a pot of boiling water, and served with a sweet broth. Again, there are many types of sweet broth – my favourite is a sweet broth made with ginger and rock sugar. (Other variants: red bean soup, a combination of fermented glutinous rice/sweet osmanthus/rock sugar)

Now, I’d never made these before last year as I always thought they were really hard to make. And I was wrong. VERY wrong. These little babies are one of the easiest Chinese foods to make, and I’m not kidding. All you need are 3 ingredients – how much better could it get? ;) And of course, since I discovered how un-difficult these are to whip up, I have been making them on a semi-regular basis. These photos have rather embarassingly been sitting in my pile of archives since last year, and I’m glad that I’m finally getting round to blogging about them. :)

Tang yuan (unfilled)
From this recipe on Nyonya Food

  • 2 cups glutinous rice flour
  • 1 tbsp caster sugar
  • 200ml water
  • food coloring (optional)

1. Mix glutinous rice flour with sugar in a large bowl.
2. Add the water, and slowly knead until it forms a soft paste that does not stick to your hands. (The mixture is very gloopy and sticky at first, but the more you knead it, the less sticky it gets)
3. If you wish to have colourful tang yuans, divide the dough into portions, and add a few drops of food colouring to each portion. Knead the dough until the food colouring is evenly distributed throughout the dough.
4. Shape the dough into 1-2cm balls.
5. Drop the balls into a pot of boiling water. The tang yuan will float to the surface of the water once they are cooked. Once this happens, transfer the tang yuan to the sugar broth. (The reason for boiling the tang yuan in a separate pot is so that they won’t “cloud” up your sweet broth. It’s not a compulsory step though, and on my lazy days I do just cook the tang yuan in the sweet broth to make washing up easier.)

Tang yuan with black sesame paste filling
Adapted slightly from this recipe on Rasa Malaysia

  • 230g (just under 1 cup) glutinous rice flour
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1/4 cup black sesame seeds, toasted
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter, softened

1. Grind the black sesame seeds until they form a fine powder (I used my mini food processor).
2. Heat a small pan over medium high heat, and transfer the ground sesame seeds into this pan. Add the softened butter and sugar to the mixture and stir until it forms a smooth paste.
3. Set aside to cool in the fridge.
4. Whilst the black sesame filling is cooling in the fridge, prepare the glutinous rice balls. The method for this are similar to that described above.
5. Divide the tang yuan dough into 20 balls.
6. Flatten each ball in your palm, and place a pinch of black sesame paste in the middle of each flattened disc. Fold up the edges (towards the centre of the disc), and press to seal. Once you have done this, lightly roll it into a ball. Take care to not get too excited with the rolling, or you may end up with a burst tang yuan and lots of sesame paste in your hands!
7. Cook the tang yuan as above, in the boiling hot water.

For the sweet broth:

  • 4-5 cups water (how much water you use depends on how much broth you want)
  • 2 pandan (screwpine) leaves, knotted
  • 1/2 cup rock sugar/brown sugar/caster sugar
  • 2 inches of ginger

1. Boil the water in a pot until it starts to bubble.
2. Add the pandan leaves and ginger, and boil for 5 minutes. Add the sugar, turn the heat down, and simmer for 15-20minutes.

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37 thoughts on “Tang yuan (glutinous rice balls)

  1. Thanks for trying my recipe. I miss black sesame dumplings. In Penang, there is a stall selling various sorts of dumplings even with durian filling and the syrup is soy bean milk (hot). So creative and good.

    I love your blog. :)

    • I never knew it could be served with hot soya milk – now I do and I’m going to try this. The one with durian filling sounds awesome. Man I miss durian.

      And thank you so much, it’s a true compliment especially coming from you! :)

  2. arhh.. I loveeee tang yuan! (except the fact that they only eat it once in a year and reminds me of the process of aging)
    I still always go for tang yuan when I visit any tong shui shop. I really like the ones in soy milk instead of the typical ginger sugar syrup, and there was one year where mum used soy milk too :)

    My favourite filling has to be black sesame and peanuts! yummy :)

    • I am now really craving for tang yuan and hot soy milk! What wouldn’t I give for a tong shui shop here in London…

      And I agree – black sesame and peanut fillings are by far my favourites.

    • Do try making them, they’re quite simple to make (rather surprisingly!) We’re all trying to tempt you hehe ;)

  3. I love these. My mom was nice enough to make these for us outside of the New Year, so we were lucky enough to enjoy it year around. Beautiful post. I love the pictures!

    • Sounds like your mom and I think alike :P It’s definitely something that deserves a right to be around the whole year in my opinion. And thank you for the kind words!

    • Thanks! And you’re right in saying they’re so easy to make. I just can’t believe I never found out till now!

  4. I love tong yuin, too! Amongst my favorite fillings are goma and peanuts! I love azuki one, too! Brings back so much fond memories! Thank you, gal!

    • Looks like most of us are reminded of our childhood when we see tang yuan. :) Sometimes it’s so nice to look back at fond memories.

  5. Yum, I love mochi-ish stuff like this. Kind of pointless story: When I was about 20, I lived next door to this Chinese supermarket in Auckland and I used to eat these red-bean paste stuffed deep-fried sesame mochi things and since it said “samountry” on the packet, I always imagined that’s what they were called. Even though that doesn’t sound particularly like Mandarin. Or Cantonese probably, for that matter. Anyway, when I realised that every type of sweet (including my favourite soft ones with coconut inside and outside) also said samountry, I figured it was the name of the company. The End.

  6. Thanks for posting this! I had these during my visits to Singapore and LOVED them. Can’t seem to find them here in US. I hope try this recipe soon!

    • Do try it soon, it’s really simple to make providing you get your hands on some glutinous rice flour (which from what I hear is quite easy to find in US). Let me know how it turns out if you do! :)

    • I agree that I would save the filled ones for last! :) The colourful ones bring back many happy memories, whilst the filled ones are little pockets of surprises. Believe it or not I never had filled ones when I was growing up!

  7. I remember I used to make tang yuens out of pink and white dough when i was a girl and I would try to create shapes with the pink and stick it to the white and see if they turns out nicely after boiling. :-)

  8. HMMMMMM! I was also under the impression that these are hard to make but the unfilled ones (which I LOVE) sound really easy! I also like the sugar + ginger soup the best. Gotta make some.. or ahem if you make them again….. *wink wink*

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  10. These seem lovely. I adore asian desserts. I cheated and bought some frozen ones from an asian grocer today and I am cooking them tonight. I was so close to buying rice flour but didn’t considering I had never seen the recipe for these and didn’t realise they were that easy to make! I am going to make a rice pudding and serve a few ontop. I think the combination would be nice. I’ll also try a few with the sweet broth. Yours look beautiful. I love the pastel colours. They look fantastic plated up! Thanks for sharing this lovely little recipe

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  12. Thanks for such a simple-to-follow recipe, and some history about these sweet lil things :) I wish they had a more appealing name than ‘glutinous rice balls’ though!

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  14. I found what I’m assuming is the store bought version with my best friend once in middle school. We both completely fell in love with this stuff, and now I have the recipe! No more hunting them down in food stores! Woo! TY TY TY!<3

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