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Tang Yuan (Sweet Rice Balls 汤圆)

Tang Yuan (Sweet Rice Balls 汤圆)

What is it?
Tang yuan are mochi-like balls made of glutinous rice flour. While they fall into two categories, those with and without filling, the filling varies. The most popular are black sesame, red bean and peanut paste. There are also various ways to serve tang yuan. Sometimes they are presented in a bowl of sugary soup, with a fancier version featuring a broth made of fermented rice and osmanthus flowers. Other times they are eaten dry, mixed with crushed peanuts, shredded coconut and sesame seeds (called tong bat lat in Cantonese).

Why is it famous?
Originally called Yuan Xiao – and designed to be eaten during the Spring Lantern Festival, the fifteenth night of the New Year, when the moon is always full – the sweet dumpling is now a fixture at dinner tables during the Lunar New Year. These dinners see families getting together from across the country and that also make the dish appropriate: that’s because tang yuan sounds a lot like tuan yuan, which means ‘reunion’.

Legend has it that one day during the Qing Dynasty, Emperor Qianlong went south of the Yangtze River and lost his way in a village. Starving and freezing, he knocked on a house and an old woman answered the door. Her family was very poor, with just a little glutinous rice flour and black sesame seeds. However, she ground the latter into a paste and wrapped them into a ball to be stuffed in the glutinous flour and cooked in a soup for the Emperor. The Emperor devoured it and asked about the name of the dish, the old woman looked at the rounded ball-shaped dumplings floating in hot water and called it tang yuan, which means literally means ‘round balls in soup’.

Where to eat it?
In Hong Kong, Gai Gai Dessert’s comprehensive list of Chinese desserts should satisfy any sweet tooth. Be sure to try the tang yuan in ginger soup, which uses fiery fresh ginger in the broth to balance the sweet dumpling. Its black sesame soup and almond soup are also big hits. Address: G/F, 121-123 Parkes Street, Jordan, Hong Kong; 852 2384-3862

Nanjing Dapai Dang is a popular chain around the country that is known for street food and snacks. Its fermented rice red bean tang yuan sweet soup is one of the most highly rated in the country. One of its locations is in Nanjing: 7/F, 18 Zhong Shan Road, Deji Plaza, Nanjing; Tel:86-25-8472-2777.

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