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Balls to Lantern Festival


If you spent a traditional New Year in Beijing, then like many around midnight, between risk-ing death or at least a severe maiming caused by people lighting enormous gunpowder-stuffed boxes with a cigarette butt, you'd also have been chowing down on that festival staple - jiaozi – with a savory pork, or perhaps egg stuffing. But on Lantern Festival, at the end of the 15-day New Year Period, the sweet or salty flavorings of yuanxiao take over.

Yuanxiao or tangyuan are those squishy round dumplings that you've probably seen, or even tried without knowing what they were. On the face of it, boiled glutinous rice sounds as appealing as moon cakes (that's not very). But it's the fillings and flavors that make yuanxiao a tasty end-of festival treat. The round shape is meant to mirror the first full moon of the year, and the assorted fillings rep-resent fullness, happiness and family reunions, even though nowadays, most people are back at work by the time the last bangs of Chunjie echo around the city.

Different flour is used to make the colorful outer coating, including polished glutinous rice flour, sorghum flour, yellow rice flour, pumpkin flour and black glutinous rice flour, to name but a few. The fillings come in even greater variet-ies – one might find typical stuffings like black sesame, peanut, red bean paste, date paste, mixed dried fruits or even fancier versions with mango, banana, taro cream or yanwo (bird's nest) fillings. There are salty, savory versions with meat and vegetables like leeks, ginger, garlic and mustard, supposed to represent a hardworking spirit, longevity and positive attitude towards life.

The way of cooking yuanxiao has also developed beyond boiling, which is the most popular and easiest ap-proach. For the best boiled yuanxiao soup, osmanthus flower sauce and rice wine are must-have ingredients. Other ingredients, such as sweet potato and coconut milk, can be added for a richer taste.

Fried yuanxiao can either be served as individual pastries or stir-fried with other vegetables. Small plain yuanxiao stirred into sweet porridge has become very popular in recent years, and is available in many restaurants.

Although many people buy frozen yuanxiao from grocery stores, the fun of making them from scratch can really add to the festive atmosphere. Here's an easy recipe to get you started.

Make your own: a simple guide

Make your own: a simple guide 

Ingredients: Glutinous rice flour and warm water (with a ratio of 10 to 6), black sesame paste, sugar, honey.

Add warm water to the glutinous rice flour and knead it until the dough is neither too soft nor too hard, and not sticky.

Mix sugar and honey into the black sesame paste to taste.

Cut the dough into small pieces and knead each into a ball.

Use your thumb to make a depression in each ball, and fill it with the sesame paste.

Use your fingers to firmly pinch the depression shut, and reshape into a ball.

Put the yuanxiao into boiling water – when they float, they're done.