Recipe: Sweet Glutinous Rice Balls(汤圆)

(Note: sorry for the large text! I wrote this in the Notes app before pasting into WordPress. I’ll try to fix it!
Update: I think I fixed it! :))

Tang yuan(汤圆 – tang yuan – tong ywehn – “soup circle”)are small balls made from ground glutinous rice. When I was in Chengdu, I tried Lai tang yuan several times. A lot of foods in Chengdu are named after the creator. In this case, a man with the last name of Lai moved to Chengdu in 1894. He started to work in a restaurant, but lost his job. He started to sell tang yuan on the street, then opened a shop on Zongfu Street. This shop is still there (according to Land of Plenty, there is a KFC on the second floor. although it was written in the 90s, so maybe it isn’t there anymore). Sadly, unlike the Chen Ma Po Dou Fu Restaurant, I did not get a chance to eat at the Lai Tang Yuan Restaurant. However, I did try these in at least three restaurants AND the Chengdu International Airport, found most right on the 2nd row (which has a wonderful street food food court with AMAZING dan dan noodles found 2nd on bottom row, guo kuei [crispy flatbread that I really want to try making at home one day] not shown, Long wontons most right on top row, Zhong dumplings most right on 3rd row, and other delicious treats. I liked it better than the restaurants that served these!) 

(There was originally a picture of the meal here, sorry. That’s why it talks about rows. It is not on my phone anymore! I will put it up sometime.)


This was the airport’s set meal at the street food court. It costed around 10 US dollars, quite expensive for a meal in China. But it was at the airport and quite a lot! Tang yuan are traditionally served on the fifteenth day of the first month in the Chinese lunar calendar. This day is called the Yuan Xiao Festival(元宵节 – yuan xiao jie – ywehn syall dzyeh)in China. It is the last day of traditional Chinese lunar new year celebrations. In 2015, this was March 5, yesterday.

I started writing this post last June! I came back to it after making the tang yuan yesterday for the Yuan Xiao Festival. Anyways, the Yuan Xiao Festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the 1st month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar. This is the first full moon of the year. On this day, people decorate the city with Chinese lanterns, which light up at night. People eat tang yuan as an important tradition. In old times, people would only eat tang yuan once a year, during the Yuan Xiao Festival for most Chinese. (But Chinese Malaysians eat it on the Winter Solstice Day, so maybe people in Fujian also do?)

Anyways, tang yuan are made from glutinous rice flour. Glutinous rice is gluten free. The word “glutinous” comes from a Latin word meaning “sticky”. This is because the rice has a sticky texture due to a starch in the rice called amylopectin (I think) that is found in higher quantity. Other names for the rice are sticky rice and sweet rice. These names are misleading because Americans call Japanese rice “sticky rice” too and glutinous rice is not sweet. For this recipe, it is preferred to use soaked glutinous rice flour, made from soaking glutinous rice, then grinding into flour. It is dry and no longer wet. The “soaked” is not labeled in English. However, the brands found in plastic bags frim Thailand with green printing are all of this variety. It call it Thai glutinous rice flour. The best brand is the Erawan brand which has a three headed elephant on it. They also have a soaked rice flour labeled “rice flour” in English, with red lettering. This is not the same thing as glutinous rice flour because it is made from regular rice. It will have a very different texture and cannot be substituted for the glutinous rice flour. Some recipes for tang yuan do contain this though, to create a slightly different texture, but all of the recipes for tang yuan contain glutinous rice flour.

Tang yuan are super easy to make at home, especially the non-filled versions. The filled versions are very easy, too, just don’t let them leak! The dough is very easy to make. Some people make it more challenging by using hot water, adding other flours like wheat starch, etc., but the easy dough made from glutinous rice flour and water is very good.

Choose your favorite filling! I included 3 filling recipes. You can also make more than one filling. Another popular filling is peanut, which I haven’t made yet. Some people do not use a filling. Plain, these tang yuan taste like rice. Often, the plain ones are added to a syrup. This is most common in Malaysian recipes. It is often common to color the tang yuan if they are plain. You can use food coloring, or beet juice for pink and panda  extract for green.

This is my own recipe! 🙂
Although it’s not exactly a recipe but rather a method of making.

Ingredients for Dough:
3/4 cup Thai glutinous rice flour
less than 1/2 cup water, as needed

Ingredients for Black Sesame Filling (mix all together)
1 tbsp toasted black sesame seeds, crushed coarsely with rolling pin in bowl or mortar
1 tbsp sugar
1/2 tbsp lard (traditional), coconut oil (gives coconut flavor), or butter
(You can also make a white sesame filling!)

Ingredients for Red Bean Filling:
prepared sweet red bean paste (I often use Wang Zhi He brand. Some Asian stores have fresh ones. You can also use canned ones. Also, If you have a pressure cooker and a blender and some time to “stir-fry” the paste, you can make your own. I will put a recipe sometime.)

Ingredients for Sesame and Red Bean Filling (mix together):
2 to 3 tbsp prepared sweet red bean paste
1 tbsp toasted black sesame seeds, crushed coarsely with rolling pin in bowl or mortar

Directions:
1. Put glutinous rice flour in a bowl.
2. Add water, mixing. You should not need all of the 1/2 cup. Mix slowly. It is done when a dough is formed that you can shape into a ball. This dough easily breaks and is quite soft, because it has no gluten, unlike wheat flour dough.
3. Form small balls. This amount should make around 20 or so.
4. To fill: make a dent in a ball so it forms a hole. Spoon a little of the filling inside. Then push up the sides gently to close well. Don’t put too much filling because it won’t close. If it doesn’t close well, it will leak into the boiling water. You can also not fill the balls and just boil them.
5. Bring a pot of water to a boil. Add tang yuan, bring back to a boil. Wait until they float. Once floating, simmer 1-2 minutes.
6. Drain the tang yuan. To serve hot, add the cooking water in the bowl. To serve warm or cold, add room temperature or colder water to the bowl.
7. Enjoy! Tang yuan are eaten as a dessert or snack. They would also be good as part of a breakfast.

元宵节快乐!
Happy Yuan Xiao Festival!
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9 thoughts on “Recipe: Sweet Glutinous Rice Balls(汤圆)

    1. Happy Yuan Xiao Festival! Tang yuan are super easy to make. My favorite is black sesame tang yuan in hot sweet rice wine. One day I hope I can make the sweet rice wine. Or I’ll try to use the one from the Chinese supermarket, but it is a little expensive for rice. Thank you! 🙂

      1. So the rice balls are in a bowl of this sweet rice wine? OR you drink it with this wine? I tried looking this sweet rice wine and got back so many Festival recipes with rice (as deserts)
        Do you have a preference for sweet red beans with or without
        The skins from the been. Would it be just a textural difference between a paste or with skin?

      2. Yes they are in a bowl with hot sweet rice wine. The rice wine is about 1% alcohol so it’s also safe for children. Especially, it is hot so probably the alcohol is mostly evaporated anyways. It’s called lao zao (醪糟). With tang yuan, lao zao tang yuan (醪糟汤圆).
        Red bean paste in Japan is two kinds. With skin and whole beans is tsubu-an (つぶあん). Without skin and smooth is koshi-an (こしあん). The tsubu-an is the one made at home. To make koshi-an is very hard, you put tsubu-an in a mesh strainer and strain well. Both are used in Japan. Tsubu-an is a good topping for dango. Koshi-an must be used in some wagashi that cannot have whole red beans inside. In China, I think the equivalent of koshi-an is always used. The easy way to make in China is to blend the cooked red beans smooth in a blender before stir-frying the paste. No straining needed, and more fiber! Anyways, tsubu-an also works in this tang yuan and other Chinese desserts, so if you have the homemade tsubu-an, no need to strain or blend. The difference is texture, one of them smooth and the other having some whole red beans. I would not say “with skin” and “without skin” since it’s a misnomer. The Chinese one that many people make at home just blends until smooth, no straining necessary, so there are skins but it is smooth. Instead, I would say “having whole red beans” or “smooth”, or just use the Japanese terms. Hope it is helpful 🙂

  1. looked at a couple of vids for Dry Fried string beans. Looks good. Since you don’t like to fry, how DO YOU bypass actual frying of string beans in oil?

    1. They are traditionally not fried but are now fried by restaurants to save time 😉
      The traditional way is a lot longer but much tastier. I think I shared a recipe with you some time ago. But I will post it detailed on the blog later. There are many variations on seasoning. This is the non-vegetarian version, from Land of Plenty by Fuchsia Dunlop. And the most delicious ever. Basically 250g green beans, remove hard end, then break each in half. Heat wok, 2 tbsp oil. Add beans. Cover, cook a minute. Uncover, stir. The traditional way doesn’t cover, but covering cooks it faster and doesn’t make it taste bad. But never add water. That will make it taste bad. Be careful, because of condensation, the oil will splatter. Repeat the stirring and covering process for a while until cooked. Use medium-high heat. This makes part of the beans “burnt” if you cook enough. Not really “burnt” but darker and fragrant. They should be tender. Al dente is faster, but less fragrant and tasty. I like tender but not mushy. So like the Chinese way, inbetween the European way and the Indian way, hehe. Then remove. Keep oil in wok. Add more oil to 2 tbsp (skip for lower fat version). Add 3 oz ground pork. Break up. Stir fry on high until cooked. Now, it might splatter but it didn’t for me. Add 2 tsp Shaoxing wine and 2 tsp light soy sauce. Stir-fry until dry. What happens is that the liquid and the pork’s natural juices evaporate, leavin the oil back behind. Now add 2 tbsp Yibin Suimi Yacai (or rinsed Tianjin preserved vegetable if you can’t find). Stir-fry 1 minute. Add the beans, stir fry 1 more minute. Take out. This is one the most delicious food ever!

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