How to Make Tāng Yuán
There’s two parts to these tāng yuán (in Mandarin; in Cantonese, they're tōng yùhn): the chewy wrapper, and the filling.
The dough to make the wrapper is really simple: you mix glutinous rice flour with water, and knead until smooth. That's it! It's pretty dry, especially compared to the liquid-y wu táu gōu (taro cake), nin gōu (steamed rice cake) or custard mochi batters that I'm more accustomed to, even though they all use glutinous rice flour.
The filling is the harder part, and one of the reasons why I ended up with plain rice balls when I made them earlier this year to put into hong dau tōng (sweet red bean soup). The majority of tāng yuán I've had in my life have a melty, creamy interior, and they are delicious, but the filling tends to refuse to cooperate when you try to wrestle it into the dough. It squishes out everywhere, leading them to explode when you cook them. Not what we're going for.
So, when I convinced my grandma to show me how to make tāng yuán, she brought over ingredients for this filling, with crushed peanuts, shredded coconut and sesame seeds. This filling is faster to make, and you can re-shape the rice balls pretty aggressively without the filling throwing a fit.
How do you keep tāng yuán overnight?
Anything with glutinous rice flour is kind of a crapshoot if you want to eat the cooked leftovers. You can heat up the tāng yuán in the soup until the exterior of the tāng yuán softens, even though it's not quite the same and sometimes has the texture of really old cooked rice that you didn't heat up properly.
My recommended method is to assemble all the tāng yuán, and freeze any that you do not cook on the day that you wrap them. They cook quickly, so I think it's worthwhile to boil them fresh rather than cooking them all at once and trying to salvage them over a few days.
How do you eat it?
Tāng yuán are typically served in hot soup. There are so many kinds of soup I'm not even sure where to start. I've seen savory ones in chicken and mushroom broth, with a clear lightness similar to this one. I like flavoring my soup with a little brown sugar, sweet potato and ginger, though my friends in college would add a little sugar and call it a day.
What does tāng yuán taste like?
The exterior is chewy and bouncy, similar to ham séui gok, or mochi.
My favorite tāng yuán (from the grocery store and at restaurants/dessert cafes) are filled with black sesame paste mixed with sugar and butter, and it's like lava (visually and temperature-wise) when you bite into one. They can also be filled with sweet red bean paste, peanut butter or savory options. Because this iteration is stuffed with peanuts, coconut and sesame, the filling is a little crunchy and crispy, which is a fun surprise for anyone who isn't used to this version.
The soup is very lightly flavored, with only a little ginger to go along with the gentle sweetness from the brown sugar and sweet potato. I personally like using a very simple soup to make sure the tāng yuán shines.
TL;DR: they're delicious. When I was with my family during the Lunar New Year in February 2020, I easily ate more tāng yuán than anyone else, and it was so good that I made at least two other batches that same week.
- 2 cups glutinous rice flour scant
- ½ cup + 2 tablespoons boiling water
- 5 tablespoons brown sugar
- ¼ cup roasted peanuts chopped
- 2 tablespoons black sesame seeds
- ¼ cup sweetened shredded coconut
- 4 cups water
- 1 medium sweet potato peeled and cut into ¼” thick half moons
- ½" knob ginger peeled and thinly sliced
In a medium bowl, mix the glutinous rice flour and the boiling water; it will still look dry and crumbly, but that’s okay. Knead the dough until a smooth mass forms; it should no longer be tacky when done, and have the consistency of modeling clay. Cover with a damp cloth.
In a small bowl, mix together 3 tablespoons brown sugar, the peanuts, sesame and coconut.
Taking a slightly smaller than ping pong ball sized piece of dough (and making sure the rest of the dough stays covered so it doesn’t dry out), roll into a ball and form into a little bowl in the palm of your hand. Spoon ½ a small spoon’s worth of sugar/peanut/sesame/coconut mixture into the middle. Gather the edges of the tāng yuán together (I find it easiest to either gather all the edges in the middle so it looks like a síu lùhng bāau, or to fold it in half into a half moon shape) and seal so that no filling will leak out when you boil these. Roll into a ball again; you can be pretty aggressive here, and the ball does not need to be perfectly smooth and round when you’re done.
In a medium pot over high heat, bring the 4 cups of water, potato, ginger and 2 tablespoons brown sugar to a boil. Cook until the sweet potato until fork tender, 5-10 minutes. Add the tāng yuán, and give everything a stir so the tāng yuán doesn’t stick together. Cook the tāng yuán until they float to the top of the soup, 3-5 minutes.
Divide the tāng yuán, soup, sweet potato and ginger into 4 bowls and serve hot.