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.

Hokkien New Year

There is a saying that states you have not truly experienced Chinese New Year until you have celebrated it in Penang. The reason behind this is because Penangites celebrate Hokkien New Year in addition to Chinese New Year. You must be thinking – whatt? Hokkien New Year? How is this different from Chinese New Year?

Basically, Hokkien New Year is celebrated on the 9th day of Chinese New Year. (If you remember, I previously mentioned that Chinese New Year is a fifteen day celebration). For us Hokkiens, it is celebrated with more grandeur compared to the 1st day. According to mum, this is because the Hokkiens were in hiding for the first eight days of Chinese New Year, and only had the chance to celebrate the New Year on the 9th day. The belief is that the Jade Emperor (Thee kong – translated as “king of the heavens”) protected our Hokkien ancestors from being caught, which is why we offer thanksgiving prayers to him.

Although these prayers are traditionally only performed by Hokkiens, more and more non-Hokkien people have started to join in to pray for a good year ahead.

The prayers start at 11pm on the 8th day of Chinese New Year (in the Lunar calendar, the day starts at 11pm instead of at midnight), but preparations start well in advance. I went round with my mum to buy the fruits and flowers earlier in the day, and brought my camera along in the hope of capturing the festive air of it all. I must say I got quite a few strange glances from people, they must have thought I was completely crazy. Oh well.

Sugarcanes are an integral part of the thanksgiving prayers. This is because the Hokkiens hid out in sugarcane plantations, which managed to prevent them from harm. This is the only time of year when you will see this sugarcanes being sold all over town, and as you can imagine, it takes a bit of maneuvering to get the long stems into your car!

“Gold” paper (kim chua) is hung from the sugarcanes (as in the photo above), and this is later burnt as a thanksgiving offering to the Jade Emperor. A pair of sugarcanes are usually used, and traditionally these are tied to the sides of the altar. However, as we do not have a proper table, we lean the sugarcanes against the walls instead.

Fruit stalls do a roaring business during this period, as fruits are used as offerings during the prayers. You have the option of either praying with vegetarian offerings (which is what my family do), or of praying with a whole shebang of offerings which usually include a whole roast pig. To find out more about the non-vegetarian offerings, do read this brilliant write up by Quinn who is another Hokkien food blogger.

Certain festive fruit also make an appearance, and are aptly decorated with red and gold. I would love to tell you what these fruit are, but I honestly do not know what they’re called. I tried asking the fruit stall owner what these were called, but they told me what it was in Chinese… and unfortunately my understanding of Chinese/Hokkien is not great so I did not have a clue what they were talking about. I love how pretty they look though! 🙂

Pineapple “flowers” are also a popular offering, and again is not something you see much of at other times of the year.

And just take a look at the ridiculous number (and size) of watermelons being sold!

The altar for prayers is set up in front of the house, an hour or so before the prayers are to begin. This is usually a table that is reserved specially for prayers (i.e. not a table that is used on a daily basis, or for any other purpose). The table is then draped in a red tablecloth, and the offerings are then placed on the altar. The size and height of tables vary greatly – for instance, we use a average height table, but my aunties use an amazingly high table which simply defies gravity (to me anyway).

All the offerings are decorated with red/gold paper with Chinese words on them. As you can see, I’m being very vague here as I have no idea what these Chinese words actually are. (Once again this is a testament of my poor grasp of the language).

“Nian gao” in Mandarin / “Thee kuih” in Hokkien – this is a sticky brown cake made from glutinous rice flour, palm sugar, and sometimes coconut milk. It’s delicious eaten on it’s own (once it’s re-steamed), or fried with yam slices. This is very popular during the New Year, and I only found out why after a spot of googling. According to Wikipedia, it is considered good luck to eat nian gao during Chinese New year, because “nian gao” is a homonym for “higher year.” The Chinese word 粘 (nián), meaning “sticky”, is identical in sound to 年, meaning “year”, and the word 糕 (gāo), meaning “cake” is identical in sound to 高, meaning “high”. As such, eating nian gao has the symbolism of raising oneself higher in each coming year (年年高升 niánnián gāoshēng). Thank you Wiki, I love you.

“Angku kuih” – literally translated as “Red tortoise cake” which I have previously blogged about. I must say though, these angkus were so delicious – much, much better than my attempt at it. I guess it’s just motivation to improve! 😛 I can’t very well be hopping on a plane back home each time I crave for them now can I?

Huat kuih in Hokkien /Fatt koh in Cantonese – “Huat” or “Fatt” means prosperity, which is why these are such a favourite during Chinese New Year. They’re light, fluffy cupcakes made from fermented rice flour and are truly little morsels of deliciousness (plus they’re steamed so you can argue that they’re a healthy snack!) An important feature of huat kuih is the “bloom” or “cracking” of the cakes – the more it “blooms”, the more “huat” or prosperous it is.

The aforementioned sugarcane – this time cut into bite sized pieces. My grandma loves chewing on these as they are really juicy (and she manages this with her dentures, rather amazingly!).

Burning the paper offerings (“Thee kong kim”) – “heaven’s gold”. This is supposed to be the currency of the heavens, and various versions of these paper offerings are burnt throughout the year during various important dates. Now I know this tradition is completely not in line with trying to reduce environmental pollution, but some traditions just can’t be unfollowed, so to speak. (Which is why we usually only do it during Chinese New Year.) This “gold” is offered as thanksgiving for the success and good fortune of the previous year, as well as hoping for a similarly good year ahead. As you can see, the sugarcane leaves are burnt alongside the “gold”.

Now, Malaysia *technically* has a ban on fireworks and firecrackers. I say technically because in reality, people seem to find a way to get their hands on them. The above photo was taken from the front of my house, where my neighbours were having what seemed like an impromptu fireworks competition. I kid you not. The fireworks and firecrackers went on for a good 2 hours – for so long that me (the firework photographing dummy) had actually figured out what camera settings to use by the end of the first hour. Having said that, all the light and loud “bangs” honestly do add to the festivity of this day. These fireworks only come out in all their glory on this day (instead of the 1st day of Chinese New Year as one may have thought), once again a testament to the importance of this day to the Hokkien people in Penang.

Long post, but I hope I’ve shed some light on the festivities of Hokkien New Year. I shall end this post with an image that for me, depicts one of the most memorable things about Chinese New Year – playing mahjong with family and friends. 🙂

The food of Chinese New Year

So I know I have been completely neglecting the blog for a good 2 weeks now. So much for my plan to catch up on my backlog and post lots of Chinese New Year related posts during my holiday back home in Penang. I’d honestly forgotten how busy it gets during Chinese New Year! It was a brilliant trip though, made even sweeter because I have not had the chance to celebrate Chinese New Year at home since I left 7 years ago. Seven! How time flies…

For us Chinese, family and food are the two most important things about this 15 day long celebration. In the days leading up to Chinese New Year, all families go on a huge cleaning spree. This is because we believe that by doing so, we sweep away the bad luck of the preceding year and prepare the home for a year of good luck and fortune. It’s also a custom to buy new clothes and to get a new haircut. I still remember how my grandma would always say that black was a major no no for the first day of Chinese New Year as it was “pantang” (bad luck). Which is why I wore something bright red. 😀

On the eve of Chinese New Year, families usually get together and have a reunion dinner. This is usually a “steamboat”/”hotpot” dinner as pictured above. How this works is by cooking the raw ingredients in the hotpot (which is filled with pre-boiled chicken broth) as you go along. Some people even have 2 pots so they can have two types of soups – one is usually clear chicken soup, whilst the other is tomyum flavoured.

There is huge variation on what people put into their steamboat – we tend to use a variety of meatballs/fishballs, fresh seafood, vegetables, and noodles of some sort (as noodles signify longevity – we Chinese are highly superstitious) .

Clockwise, from top left: bee hoon (rice vermicelli), a variety of fried bean curd/tofu puffs (I have to admit that I have no idea what they’re called, I can tell you they were ultra yummy though!), straw mushrooms and little gem leaves.

Clockwise, from top left again: Chicken slices & fishballs, pomfret (possibly one of my favourite fishes ever, I hate that it’s so hard to find here in London), prawns & more fishballs, and soft shelled crab.

Basically, everyone gathers around the dining table and adds the ingredients into the steaming soup in rounds. What my family has always done is to cook the fishballs/fried items first as they help to sweeten the soup. Fish and prawns always go in a bit later as they cook very quickly and run the risk of becoming overcooked if you put them in right at the beginning. And the soup gets more yummy as the night goes on. If you are one of those people with bottomless appetites, you get to drink the sweet soup that remains at the end of the dinner. (This is usually me or my dad. Lol.)

And let’s not forget the ever important “yee sang” or “yu sheng”. This is basically a raw fish salad that is eaten throughout Chinese New Year, and signifies prosperity and good fortune. A wide variety of ingredients are used in this salad – the usual suspects are pickled leeks, daikon, carrots, red pickled ginger, deep fried crackers, pomelo pulp, peanuts, sesame seeds, five spice powder and plum sauce.

And then the time comes to “lou” or toss the salad. The fish and the sauce is added to the salad, and everyone then stands up with chopsticks in hand. We then proceed to toss the salad with the chopsticks – the higher you toss, the more luck you get. Having said that, I always toss with more caution if I’m in my own home as you don’t really want to cause too much of a mess (and believe me, you can cause a real mess!).

And just to prove what an important dish this is during Chinese New Year – they even served it on the plane! I was really surprised to see it on the menu, but I suspect that it’s something that is always served during this period (and I never knew as I haven’t flown around this time before this year). You have to love Singapore Airlines. 😉

As I didn’t want to miss out on the fun, I also made my own version. I’ve been making it for the past few Chinese New Year’s, and didn’t want to miss a chance to do so this year. (And I will admit that I didn’t want to “lose” any luck because of that! 😛 ) I tweak it every year, and am sure I will continue to do so for a while. You can find the recipe for my version at the end of this post.

Stir fried choy sum with fatt choy. Fatt choy is the chinese name for the black moss used in this dish, and is popular during Chinese New Year as “fatt choy” translates into prosperity. It can sometimes look slightly disgusting as it resembles human hair, but it tastes much better than it looks.

Prosperity burger from McDonalds. Yes, McDonalds! I love this burger (which is only sold during the Chinese New Year period), and it is by far my favourite burger from McD’s. It’s a chicken or beef patty, slathered in a very spicy black pepper sauce, sandwiched between a long burger bun. I only wish they would sell it here in London!

And who could forget the Chinese New Year cookies? There is a huge variety available, most of which I happily munch on every year. My parents are lovely and have always sent me some, so I must admit I’ve not been hugely deprived in this department. And of course, when I do go home for Christmas, I lug containers of cookies all the way back to London. What can I say? Food is important.

Kuih kapit (love letters) – these babies are very fragile, and can easily be crushed into a thousand little pieces if you’re not careful. I’m happy to say I managed to transport a whole container of these all the way back to London in one piece. Of course, I should have known it was too good to be true – I managed to fling it (they’re really light) off the tabletop when trying to clear up. Thankfully, they didn’t break into too many pieces. Phew.

A lot of work goes into making kuih kapit, and it usually requires teamwork. The batter is then spooned into the kuih kapit moulds, and they are cooked on a charcoal fire grill. Once the kuih kapit is cooked, you remove it from the mould, and immediately fold it to form the fan shape you see in the photo. I remember making these when I was younger and having to accustom my fingers to the hot, freshly cooked kuih kapit! (The kids were always assigned the task of folding the kuih kapits, as we weren’t allowed to be too close to the grill). If you’re interested, this site shows photos of this process.

Kuih loyang/honeycomb kuih/kuih rose/beehive kuih. As you can see, there are many names for this treat, which is so pretty to look at. They aren’t easy to make though – once the batter is made, you dip the loyang mould into the batter, and then into hot oil where it is deep fried.

Kuih bangkit. These little delightful morsels are made from coconut milk, eggs and flour. They have a “powdery” taste, and are crunchy. I’m aware that I’m not describing these kuihs very well, but I never was one who was good with words. :S

Arrowroot chips. These taste better than Lay’s potato chips. Trust me.

Pineapple tarts. One of the must-have cookies during Chinese New Year. I suspect they may be so popular because pineapples are called “ong lai” in Hokkien (a Chinese dialect), which can also be translated as “prosperity come”. But for me, I eat it because they’re good. The buttery crumbly crust, coupled with the fresh pineapple jam is truly a match made in heaven.

Kuih bangkit. These are very similar to madeleines in both shape and taste.

Green pea crackers. This was the first time I’ve tried these, and I’m glad I did! They are seriously good, with a very distinct green pea taste. No idea how they’re made (they were sold by the lady selling curry mee at a nearby hawker centre).

Groundnut cookies, cashewnut cookies (the flower shaped ones) and almond cookies. The lighter coloured ones are almond cookies, the darker ones are groundnut. You can also tell the difference from its taste – groundnut cookies melt in your mouth, and no chewing is actually necessary to eat these; whereas almond cookies are more… sturdy? Hmmm. I’d welcome any ideas as to how to describe the difference between these two cookies.

Ribbon kuih. These are made from a pastry dough (which is similar to wonton skins), and then deep fried. I’ve just realised that I should have tried dipping them in chocolate, hmmm.

These are just some of the foods that are synonymous with Chinese New Year, and I can’t wait till next year when I get to do it all again!

Yee Sang/Yu Sheng (Chinese New Year raw fish salad)

For the salad:

  • 2 carrots, julienned*
  • half a daikon, julienned*
  • 1 cucumber, julienned*
  • one quarter of a pomelo
  • 1 can pickled leeks, chopped
  • 1 packet wonton skins, cut into 1cm strips
  • 1 lime, quartered
  • 2 tablespoons five spice powder
  • 1 cup salted peanuts, finely chopped
  • 200g smoked salmon

* I used my Japanese julienne peeler to do this – much easier than using a knife!

For the pickled cucumbers:
1. Add 3 tablespoons white wine vinegar and 1 tablespoon sugar to the julienned cucumbers. Leave for at least 30 minutes.
2. Strain as much liquid from the cucumbers as you can, and there you have it – pickled cucumbers!

For the crunchy crackers:
1. Heat 1cm oil in a pan. Add the wonton skin strips into the oil in small batches, and fry until golden brown.
2. Remove from heat into a bowl lined with kitchen paper.
3. Repeat the above with the remaining wonton skin strips. Please note that you will need to top up the oil every so often. (Alternatively you can deep fry the crackers, which will produce a crispier result. I don’t deep fry so I resort to this method.)

For the sauce:
1. Mix 4 parts plum sauce with 1 part hoisin sauce. You can also add a tablespoon of apricot jam to the sauce (optional).

Counting down to the year of the tiger!

First of all, I need to apologise for not blogging for such a long time – I think it’s been 2 weeks now, yikes! Posted the previous post the day I started my week of night calls, and then it was a mad flurry of shopping for gifts to bring home to Malaysia, then the ‘post coming home’ period of pure sloth… But yes. I have neglected my blog for a while, but I will be good over the next few weeks and bring you some hopefully interesting (and festive) posts about Chinese New Year! 🙂 Am very excited about this year as I haven’t celebrated Chinese New Year at home since I first left for UK 7 years ago.

As most of you probably already know, Chinese New Year is centered around two things – family/friends and food. And when I say food, I truly mean food. You may have already come across the various types of cookies found during this season in the blogosphere (e.g. the ever favourite pineapple tarts, groundnut cookies, kuih bangkit). And believe me when I say that this barely scratches the surface of the variety of cookies you can find during Chinese New Year (a future post).

I decided to make these angku kuih when I was still in London as I had a major craving for them. Angku kuih is a traditional Chinese pastry that has always held a special place in my heart. It has a sticky outer skin, which gives way to a yummy green bean or peanut filling when bitten into. The name “angku kuih” translates into “red tortoise cakes” – traditionally, these kuih are made with a special mold, which gives them a beautiful “tortoise shell” pattern and shape (see here for photos of what this looks like). I didn’t have a mold to hand, which is why my angku kuihs are less pretty to look at!

But as I was saying, this pastry is shaped like the shell of a tortoise as the Chinese believed that eating a pastry in the shape of these creatures with such long lives would subsequently lead to longevity. These kuih (pastries) usually make an appearance during special occasions such as religious events (where they are used as an offering to the various gods), birthdays and first month anniversaries of births of babies. You can get them all year round though, as they are a popular snack. And just to mention something rather interesting – for first month anniversaries, angku kuihs for 1 month old boys are oval in shape, whereas the ones for the girls are round. (Having said that, I have friends who said they didn’t know about this, perhaps it’s a Hokkien thing?)

Angku kuih
Tweaked from this recipe on My Kitchen, who adapted it from kuali.com

For the skin:

  • 250 grams glutinous rice flour (this is easily available in the London Chinatown)
  • 120 mls hot water
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 130 grams of sweet potatoes – steamed and mashed (I used 2 medium sized sweet potatoes)
  • few drops of food colouring (optional) – red and orange are the traditional colours, but feel free to use green or even purple

For the filling:

  • 200 grams green mung beans*
  • 2 tbsp of oil (I used canola oil)
  • 150 grams sugar (I used caster sugar)

You will also need:

  • Banana leaves (cut into rounds/squares to fit each kuih, and lightly greased with oil)

1. Prepare the filling first. Place the mung beans, sugar and oil into a blender and whizz it into a fine paste. Leave to cool, then divide into small round balls (~2cm in diameter).
2. Next, mix all the ingredients for the skin in a large bowl until it forms a soft dough. You don’t need a mixer for this, using your hands works best. If you find that the dough is too dry and it crumbles, add more water (a little at a time) until it no longer crumbles.
3. Divide the skin dough into little rounds of ~3cm in diameter. (I played it by ear when it came to this, so please forgive the rather vague instructions here).
4. Flatten a ball of dough, place the ball of filling in it, and wrap it up (it should form a ball). Place this onto a greased banana leaf. Repeat until all the filling and dough balls are used up.
5. Steam the kuih for 8 minutes. I used a bamboo steamer to do this.
6. Remove the kuih from the steamer, and brush with some oil immediately. This helps to prevent the kuih from sticking to one another (and trust me, it is VERY sticky!). Of course, you do run the risk of getting overexcited brushing too much oil onto the kuihs (as I did) – so remember to be less heavy handed than me when doing this…

*Soak the beans overnight, then steam and mash them. It’s best to get skinned mung beans as it gives you a nicer pale yellow coloured filling. I used mung beans with skins still on, which gave me a “dirtier” looking filling – it doesn’t change the taste in any way though!

Here’s wishing you all Gong Xi Fa Cai – may the year of the tiger bring happiness, health and good food to us all! 🙂