Why this Chinese dessert is so important during Lunar New Year

The folks behind Chang’an Restaurant in Los Angeles explain why a Chinese New Year feast isn’t complete without the symbolic tang yuan dessert, and give an inside look at how to make it.

Meiying Jin rolls the dough for tang yuan at Chang’an restaurant. Photo by Jean Trinh.
Contributor Jean Trinh reports. This piece was made possible by KCRW’s Independent Producer Project.

The humble tang yuan, mochi-like balls made of glutinous rice flour, can be as tiny as marbles. But what this Chinese dessert lacks in size, it makes up for in its large, symbolic presence at the dinner table every Lunar New Year.

“Tang yuan,” as it’s referred to in Southern China, and “yuan xiao” in the North, is a versatile dumpling with a chewy and sticky texture. It can either be served in its simplest form, as plain white balls, or stuffed with fillings like black sesame, red bean and peanut paste. Some people even add food dye to the rounds to give them a pop of color. These dumplings are usually served in a bowl of translucent, sugary soup, sometimes enhanced by ginger, and other times accompanied by sweet fermented rice and aromatic osmanthus flowers.

This dessert is usually available all year long and can often be found at Chinese restaurants, like Chang’an in San Gabriel, but no Chinese New Year celebration is complete without it.

Minda Zhang, who co-owns Chang’an with her husband Hao, likens Lunar New Year to Christmas, a time when people reunite with their families. “But people don’t go back home for just one day; they actually go home for quite [some] time,” Zhang says. “Chinese New Year in China is the biggest vacation, where many stores and restaurants are closed for a whole week.”

In Chinese culture, superstitions and traditions are intertwined with the food served during Lunar New Year. Playful homophones and puns give particular dishes symbolic meanings, and these items are eaten during the holiday to ensure a prosperous and lucky new year.

Once the black sesame powder is mixed with sugar and lard, it becomes a sweet paste filling. Photo by Jean Trinh.

The direct translation of “tang yuan” is simply “soup ball,” but it also takes on other meanings. “The pronunciation of ‘tang yuan’ is very similar to [the Chinese phrase meaning] togetherness and the gathering of families,” says Zhang, who grew up in Beijing.

Lunar New Year is a 15-day celebration, with this year’s beginning on Feb. 16. Tang yuan is usually consumed on the last day, which is celebrated as the Yuan Xiao Festival (aka Lantern Festival). The dessert’s other moniker, “yuan xiao,” translates to “first evening,” a reference to the first full moon after the new year, with the round shape of the dessert representing the celestial body.

Rice wine yeast powder is poured over steamed sticky rice. Photo by Jean Trinh.

For being such a seemingly simple dessert, it requires skill and patience to make it right. Shanghainese chef, Meiying Jin, visits Chang’an on a weekly basis to make the restaurant’s glutinous rice balls on site. Jin, who also prepares noodles and dumplings for other local restaurants, has been making tang yuan for 40 years; it’s a skill she acquired from culinary school in Shanghai.

The balls are made from a doughy mixture of glutinous rice flour and water that Jin kneads and rolls into thin logs. She cuts them into small pieces before rolling them into their signature spherical shape. Jin then fills the center of these dumplings with a black sesame paste that is comprised of toasted black sesame powder, white sugar and pork lard.

Tang yuan filled with black sesame paste. Photo by Jean Trinh.

One of Jin’s specialties is making the sweet fermented rice that accompanies the dumplings. After steaming sticky rice, she rinses it with water to ensure the grains don’t clump up. Jin puts the rice in a container, dusts it with a powdered rice wine yeast, pokes a hole in the center with a pair of chopsticks and covers it with a lid. After the rice is left alone for four days, the hole is filled with rice wine, an indication that the fermentation process is complete. The result is sweet rice with a fragrant and pungent, wine-like tanginess. It’s then showered with dried yellow osmanthus flowers.

In preparing the final steps of the dessert, Jin boils the balls in sugar water in a wok, and then cracks in an egg, swirling it into a stream of ribbons just like you would for egg drop soup. She puts a scoop of the fermented sweet rice in a bowl, ladles the dumplings and the warm soup over it, and tops it again with a pinch of osmanthus flowers.

This version of tang yuan can be found year-round at Chang’an, a modern Chinese restaurant with industrial digs. It will also be included in the restaurant’s special Lunar New Year dinner, which will include dishes like stir-fried lobster, braised sea cucumber and grilled lamb chops, meant to be shared family-style for groups of four-to-12. The set menu will also include auspicious dishes like whole fish, which just like tang yuan has a symbolic meaning, one that wishes prosperity for the new year.

Tang yuan in a sugary soup, sweet fermented rice and topped with egg and osmanthus flowers. Photo by Jean Trinh.

Chang’an’s Lunar New Year dinner is offered from Feb. 12 to Feb. 18, and reservations are highly recommended. For more info, contact them at (626) 872-0906. The restaurant is located in the Hilton Hotel Plaza at 227 W. Valley Blvd. #348, San Gabriel.