Tangyuan is a traditional food eaten during the Lantern Festival as well as being a typical snack for those of the Han ethnicity. Close to midnight all the members of the family will assemble under a bright light and proceed to eat the prepared tangyuan.
Originating in the Song dynasty, tangyuan is one of the most common and most traditional foods in China. They are sticky rice balls made of glutinous rice flour rolled in varieties of sweet fillings such as black sesame, peanut, red bean, chocolate or fruit paste. In southern China, pork, chicken and vegetable fillings are very popular. Most tangyuan are white. Colourful tangyuan are usually small and contain nothing inside. Normally they symbolise family unity, completeness and happiness to mark the end of the Chinese New Year festivities.
Tangyuan and Yuan xiao
Tangyuan is what it is usually referred to as in the south, while in the north they are commonly known as "yuan xiao". The main difference in yuan xiao to tangyuan is how it is produced. When making yuan xiao, the process generally starts with the filling. Stir the filling first and spread it into a circle, then allow them to cool for several minutes so they are ready to be cut into small cubes. The final process is to pour a certain amount of glutinous rice flour on the filling and sift them until the outer skin has a delicate and slippery consistency.
However, the process of tangyuan is slightly different. It's quite similar to how a sweet dumpling is made without the use of rolling pins. Pour hot water into the glutinous rice flour first and get the fillings ready in a bowl. Shape the mixed flour into a round wafer and wrap the fillings within it. Try to wrap them completely in case they leak.
In northern China, the tradition used to be that "yuan xiao" is made on the seventh day of the New Year and sold on the eighth. One only used to be able to buy these treats in restaurants throughout the Lantern Festival until the 18th of the first month. After that date, the dumplings were no longer available. Nowadays, thanks to the freezing process, they are available all year round and the old tradition no longer exists in most cities.