In some Chinese regional customs, glutinous rice balls are eaten on the 15th day of the Chinese New Year (i.e. 21 Feb in 2008). As this is known as the Yuan Xiao 元宵 Festival, the glutinous rice balls eaten at this time are often called yuan xiao rather than tang yuan 汤圆, which are eaten during the Winter Solstice Festival (冬至, Dong Zhi) , although the names are interchangeable, depending on the regional vocabulary.
Hence, a common question is whether yuan xiao and tang yuan are identical, and the answer depends on who is answering. This China news source describes the terms as interchangeable and this site about Guangzhou uses ‘tang yuan‘ for the Yuan Xiao Festival food, whereas my Taiwanese friends certainly recognise a difference. Taipei Travel Net explains how yuan xiao and tang yuan are made in very different ways. The yuan xiao method sounds pretty difficult to me! I wonder if one could use the tang yuan method and pass it off as yuan xiao?!?
Incidentally, I don’t think glutinous rice balls are a typical feature of the 15th day of Chinese New Year in Singapore and Malaysia. Here, tang yuan is much more strongly associated with the Dong Zhi 冬至 Festival for Winter Solstice. Moreover, the 15th day of the Lunar New Year tends to be celebrated not as Yuan Xiao 元宵 – also known as the Lantern Festival in China – but as Chap Goh Meh (十五暝, ‘fifteenth night’), following the Hokkien/Fujianese tradition. Just to complicate things a little more, in Singapore and Malaysia, ‘Lantern Festival’ refers to the Mid-Autumn Festival 中秋节 (15th day of 8th month of lunar calendar).
Well, with family reunions symbolised by round glutinous rice balls on our mind in the run up to Chinese New Year, it’s an opportune time to start experimenting with non-traditional variations again, as I did around Dong Zhi 冬至 last December. My favourite was the five-coloured glutinous rice balls taken from a wagashi recipe book.
Today, I tried making mitarashi dango, shortcutting by adding sugar to some sukiyaki sauce I’d made up ages ago and had sitting around in the fridge. Never having tried genuine mitarashi dango before, I have no idea if mine tasted the way it should have. Nevertheless, I was really surprised how much I enjoyed a dish which didn’t sound very appetising to me from the description :). [26/2/08 update: Read the latest post from Just Hungry about mitarashi dango.]
My mitarashi dango look rather pale. Perhaps my sauce wasn’t thick enough to stay coated on the dango, or quite possibly the surface was still wet from the water the dango were boiled in so the soya sauce just slid off the slippery surface.
Having satisfied my curiosity with this experiment, I probably wouldn’t make mitarashi dango for myself to eat very often, because the sauce is has things that are are simply unhealthy (refined white sugar) as well as those that might cause a food intolerance reaction in me: even if using macrobiotic grade version, soya sauce=fermented, mirin=alcohol (while cheap supermarket versions are made with dodgy additives), dashi=glutamates. Actually, the sauce tastes somewhat like bee cheo! Well they are both types of thick, sweetened soya sauce.
Together with the mitarashi dango, I made up my own variation of green tea glutinous rice balls drizzled with brown rice syrup.
1) 60g (125ml cup measure) of glutinous rice flour mixed with 1/2 teaspoon matcha green tea powder. This is enough to impart a subtle matcha flavour without being overpowering, but you could add a pinch more if you prefer. The quantity of matcha I used previously was too much. Don’t worry if the dry flour looks very white, after you mix in the water to form a dough it will become a pale green, and the colour will become more intense after cooking as well.
3) Amount of water is slightly less than amount of flour. Please remember to mix the water in using your hands so that you can accurately gauge the consistency of the dough. Use just barely enough water for all the dough sticking together. If it is slightly too soft, you won’t be able to shape nicely-formed round balls. If it’s a bit too dry and cracks apart when you try to roll it, then just dab your hands with water.
In the event that you have unfortunately added too much water, you can either try to add in more flour, or simply leave the glutinous rice balls for a while and they will dry out and harden. Today, I left my overly soft green tea dango on the kitchen worktop whilst I went about making another dish, and by the time I was done, the green tea dango were much easier to roll into smooth round shapes.
4) For me, the best way to get even-sized balls is to use a chopping sheet with measurements. 1 cup of flour will produce about 20 glutinous rice balls. I roll the dough into a thick sausage shape and cut it into five pieces, then re-roll each of those pieces into a smaller sausage and cut them into four pieces each. This is easier than trying to make one long sausage, of even diameter throughout, to cut into 20 sections.
5) Once the balls have been shaped, pop them into a pot of boiling water and when they float to the surface they are done.
Do not put the cooked balls onto a flat surface for a prolonged period of time as the bottom will become flat and you won’t have nice round balls any more. So it’s best to cook them just before eating and leave them suspended in water until it’s time to serve them.