Kaladkarin Diaries

Ramblings about food, cooking, recipes, travels, history and walking around Manila.

Tang Yuan (Glutinous Rice Balls)

When I was still a 6 year old,  I remembered Tai-ma bringing me to a temple (not Pao Kong) in Williams Street, Pasay City. I’m not sure what the place was called back then, but it houses photos of our dead relatives where monks pray for them. From what I recall, the compound has two houses. One is like a temple and the other is where other grannies volunteer to prepare food. In the middle of these two houses was a fish pond with a little bridge where I always played when I get bored.

It was always quiet there, and I think I’m the only loud mouth (and kid) who was running around and playing with whatever I could. I didn’t really know why I was always brought there. I could remember volunteers in one area preparing ingredients and cooking. It was a friggin’ kitchen stadium with old women and the scary knives. Soon, the smell of incense from the altars was replaced by fragrant onions, garlic, peanut oil etc. Oh, did I mention they only serve vegetarian food??? My Tai-ma never told me they were cooking and serving vegetarian dishes. So when carnivorous little me was told to eat, I immediately picked the one that looks like spam or luncheon meat… only to realize that it wasn’t real meat but vegemeat.

Later in the afternoon, the ladies would gather around a wooden table and make these glutinous balls in sweet syrup. As they make these balls, I often help out. It was fun, like play Doh! Fast forward to the present, it’s easy to get ready made glutinous balls. Just go to the frozen aisle/section in Chinese supermarkets if you live in Binondo. But I do miss making them like I would with my Tai-ma.

These glutinous balls brought back fond memories, so I decided to make them from scratch. Traditional Tang Yuan are white (original dough color) and red (I made mine more pink than red) but you can get creative and use other food coloring.

Tang Yuan (tongyuen in Cantonese, tangyuen in Mandarin or kueh ee – Hokkien dialect – my dialect) is a Chinese food made from glutinous rice flour mixed with a small amount of water to form balls, cooked in boiling water and served with sweet syrup.

These glutinous balls, can be either small or large, and filled or unfilled. They are traditionally eaten during Yuanxiao or the Lantern Festival. It can also be served as a dessert on Chinese wedding day, Winter Solstice Festival, and any occasions such as family re-union, because of a homophone for union (simplified Chinese: 团圆; traditional Chinese: 團圓; pinyin: tuányuán).

In the olden days, the elders are very strict with the making of tang yuan.The white tang yuan has to be bigger and the pink ones smaller and dont ask me why, I forgot to ask why. Tai-ma would supervise me closely to see that the balls are standard sizes and very, very round hehehe.

Kueh Ee or Tuan Yuan is also used in the worship of the Kitchen God. Legend has it that the Kitchen God returns to the heavens on this day to report to the 玉皇大帝 Jade Emperor or better known to the Hokkiens as “Tee Kong” 天公 on the events which occurred on Earth during the past year. Thus, to prevent the Kitchen God from saying too much, especially the ill-happenings and gossips within the family, these sticky glutinous rice balls are used to seal the Kitchen God’s mouth. And the accompanying sugary broth ensures that whatever that escapes from the Kitchen God’s mouth would be sweet talk as well! In some Chinese communities, a cooked glutinous rice ball would be ceremoniously plastered onto his mouth on the Kitchen God’s portrait or on the wooden tablet bearing his name to ensure that the plot is fail-proof!

The term for small dainty sweet treats and desserts while “Ee” is Hokkien Chinese for 圆 yuan to mean “round”. That said, the etymology of the word “Kueh” may actually be traced back to their Chinese origins from the southeastern dialects like Hokkien and Teochew for the word 餜 or 粿.

For the Recipe:

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Tang Yuan balls
Ingredients:
300 grams glutinous rice flour mix with 2 tablespoon of sugar
1/2 cup of boiling water
1 cup of room temperature water

Syrup:
4 1/2 cups water
50 grans ginger
100 grams rock sugar
pandan leaves (optional)

Instructions:
1) Buy a packet of glutinous rice flour.

2) Use about 300 grams (a packet is normally 500 grams but that will yield too much tang yuen) of flour.

3) Take 1/3 of the flour and put in a big bowl. Boil some hot water till boiling hot. Slowly pour some of the water to the flour to ‘cook’ it. You want a messy ball of dough so add just enough.

4) Using a wooden spoon, mix the dough till smooth. Slowly add the 2/3 of the flour and keep adding some water till you get a dough that doesn’t stick to your hands. Remember that there is no firm and fast rule on the quantity of flour versus water. Just add flour or water to get the right consistency.

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5) Once the dough is pliable, separate them into small portions if you wish to add food colourings.

6) Now, use some flour to flour a flat plate. You can now start rolling the dough into tiny balls. To get consistent sizes, I normally roll the dough into a long strand like a snake. Then, I pinch off into smaller bits and roll them into balls.

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BOILING THE RICE BALLS:
Boil a large pot of water, drop in the balls. Once they float, they are cooked. Prepare a big bowl of room temperature water that has been boiled. Scoop the tang yuan from the pot and put them in the bowl of water. You must use boiled water to avoid contamination.

FOR THE SYRUP:
You can use any kind of syrup. Traditionally, we use ginger and rock sugar, making a clear, sweet soup. The coloured balls look beautiful in this clear, sugar syrup. Add enough water to get the sweetness you like.

You could also use brown sugar and pandan leaves (screwpine leaves). Add enough water to get a sweet syrup.

SECRET TO GETTING SOFT RICE BALLS:

Normally, if you store the rice balls in the fridge, it will harden. But if you use the 1/3 flour with boiling water as mentioned above, the rice balls remain soft. This way, you can store the rice balls soaking in syrup in the fridge overnight.

***OPTIONAL FILLINGS

Most of us follow the traditional Hokkien/Nyonya style. However, some folks will use the dough and add some ground peanuts with sugar or red bean paste as fillings.
50 grams peanuts
25 grams sugar
10 grams butter

* In a wok without any oil, stir fry peanuts until fragrant and skin a little bit burnt. Transfer to a plate and let cool. You can either use your fingers or palm to loosen the skin . Crush peanuts by using rolling pin or use a mini food processor which is easier, add sugar and butter , mix well. Refrigerate the mixture for an hour.

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*** Note : I added 2 teaspoon of creamy peanut butter and use brown sugar.

* In a large bowl , put in the flour and gradually add water ; knead to form a pliable dough. Pinch a small amount of the dough , flatten it and put in some peanut filling and roll it into balls . Repeat until you used all the dough or the filling .

7) Boil water and add rock sugar. Dump in the balls and when it floats , it’s already cooked . Serve hot .

*** Note : (ratio) If you use about 300 grams of glutinous rice flour, that makes 50 small balls . Cook 20 balls in 4 1/2 cups of water with 50 grams of sliced ginger and 100 grams of rock sugar.

… enjoy!

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