It’s almost Chinese New Year and families across China have made their annual migration back to their ancestral homes and will be spending the next month feasting, catching up and – perhaps most importantly – taking a much-needed break from the rest of the year. For many Chinese families, this is their only time off.
I am at a friend’s apartment in Hangzhou and hyper-aware that this time of year is the worst for travel because of the festivities. Trains and planes are booked to the brim; large metropolitan hubs like Beijing and Shanghai are essentially deserted because everyone has gone home. I’m lying low this year, honestly just trying to make it through without getting overwhelmed by the crowds.
On Feb. 22, the festivities will conclude with the Lantern Festival, also known as yuanxiao jie 元宵节. Tangyuan, or sweet rice balls, are the month’s hallmark dessert. They're the sugary equivalent of a dumpling, often infused with black sesame, red bean, or ground peanuts. It's an auspicious dessert: the round shape of the delicacy signifies unity within the family. It's usually simply served in the water it was boiled in.
I obtained this recipe at a cooking class in Shanghai (chinesecookingworkshop.com) and was horrified when a bowl of pork fat appeared in front of me. My friend and I looked at Mike, our cooking teacher, for reassurance, half-wishing it was a mistake.
“How else does the filling stay together?” he said, smiling.
Sorry, vegetarians. Tangyuans, despite their innocent appearance, are definitely not meat-free.
It makes sense. Pork fat, melded together with powdered sugar and sesame, creates a wonderful solid ball that holds up well. The exterior is simply glutinous rice powder and water melded together into a soft, glossy dough.
Note: For this recipe, it’s best to measure things out on a kitchen scale. The proportion of filling to dough is rather important.
And if you happen to be in Shanghai, I recommend hitting up Qibao Old Street for your tangyuan fix. It’s a historic street that runs along a series of canals. There are a handful of extremely popular tangyuan vendors; you’ll spot them immediately because of the long lines. The cook will be at the front of the restaurant, boiling the rice dumplings, while a cluster of workers stand in the back, behind a glass window, rolling and stuffing the dumplings with amazing speed.
Here’s the recipe:
Prep time: 40 mins
Cook time: 10 mins