Tangyuan, associated with the Winter Solstice and Chinese New Year, is very popular among Chinese people. As a traditional Chinese food, Tangyuan is made from glutinous rice flour. Tangyuans can be either small or large, and filled or unfilled. They are traditionally eaten during the Lantern Festival. Today, mass-produced Tangyuan are commonly found in the frozen food section of supermarkets in China and overseas.
Historically, a number of different names were used to refer to Tangyuan. During the Yongle era of the Ming Dynasty, the name was officially settled as Yuanxiao (derived from the Yuanxiao Festival), which is used in northern China. This name literally means “first evening”, being the first full moon after Chinese New Year, which is always a new moon. In southern China, however, they are called Tangyuan or Tangtuan. Legend has it that during Yuan Shikai’s rule from 1912 to 1916, he disliked the name Yuanxiao because it sounded identical to “remove Yuan”, and so he gave orders to changed the name to Tangyuan. This new moniker literally means “round balls in soup”. Tangtuan similarly means “round dumplings in soup”. In the two major Chinese dialects of far southern China, Hakka and Cantonese, “Tangyuan” is pronounced as tong rhen and tong jyun respectively. The term “Tangtuan” is not as commonly used in these dialects as Tangyuan.
In both filled and unfilled Tangyuans, the main ingredient is glutinous rice flour. For filled Tangyuans, the filling can be either sweet or savory. Northern Tangyuans mix sesame, peanuts, sweet bean paste and are placed into the bamboo baskets. While southern Tangyuans are typically larger, and are made by wrapping the filling into sticky rice flour wrapping and crumpling them into balls. Although both kinds of Tangyuans are cooked in boiling water, the ways to eat Tangyuans are different. The filled Tangyuans are served along with the water in which it is boiled (hence the “soup” in the name), while the unfilled Tangyuans are served as part of a sweet dessert soup, which literally means “sugar water”). Common types include: red bean soup, black sesame soup, ginger and rock sugar, fermented glutinous rice.
Tangyuan can be easily made at home in less than half an hour. The dough is made by mixing water with glutinous rice flour and regular rice flour. Cooks knead the mixture until the dough becomes less sticky. Colorful Tangyuans are made by separating the dough into portions and adding a little food to each portion. Then, he or she shapes the dough into balls of the desired size. At this stage, the cook adds fillings, introducing some into each little ball. Next, the cook drops the Tangyuans in a vessel containing boiling water. In around five minutes or more, the balls will float to the surface. This indicates that they are cooked. The cooked Tangyuans are removed, dumped into cool water, and drained after a while. They are then ready to be served in sweet hot syrup made of brown sugar or rock candy and ginger.
For many Chinese families in mainland China as well as overseas, Tangyuan is usually eaten together with family. The round shape of the balls and the bowls where they are served, come to symbolize the family togetherness.