Tang Yuan Dreams

A childhood memory of mine is sitting in the family room with a bowl of 2 – 3 glutinous rice balls, sometimes with a peanut filling, sometimes with black sesame, prepared by mom. As a child, my reference for it was that it was a dessert we ate that had something to do with the moon. Fast forward to 2020, and tang yuan ended up being something I desperately sought out that year for a sense of stability and home. For many of my friends, the desire for the food we grew up with was extra strong during the time when Covid was new and we weren’t sure how long we would stay locked in our apartments with rolls of toilet paper and instant mix for Dalgona coffee.

Tang yuan has a special meaning for me because of all those layers – it signifies my childhood, my culture, and the moon’s phases. Our family and friends typically eat it during Lunar New Year, the Lantern Festival, and the winter solstice. Most recently we went with some friends to a tang yuan tasting where the dessert was served in a chocolate sauce and the experience was accompanied by a soundtrack made specifically for eating tang yuan.

What is it?

A glutinous rice flour ball, typically the size of a ping pong ball is boiled in water and served in a sweet broth. Tang yuan can contain different fillings such as peanuts or red beans. My personal favorite is a black sesame filling.

When do you eat it?

It’s typically eaten during the Lantern Festival which is the first full moon of the year and lands on the last day of LNY celebrations. 

What’s the culture around it?

It originated in China, an 1100-year-old tradition that started in Ningbo. The spherical shape of the tang yuan represents the full moon and also unity because it’s usually when family reunions take place. It’s also lucky to eat food that comes in little packages like dumplings because they can represent bags of money.

How can I get some?

They’re usually available in the frozen section at your local Chinese grocery store like 99 Ranch. You can also order from specialty companies like Gu Grocery in Los Angeles or try making your own. I made some for the first time with the help of a kit from Rooted Fare.