I’ve already written about glutinous rice balls in sweet red bean soup and in hot ginger soup, but there are a multitude of ways to serve tang yuan, and it’s always good to have a look at as many varieties as possible to spark off your own creative juices.
For Winter Solstice, the tang yuan dish traditionally includes some of the rice balls coloured red, as you can see in The Modern Vegetarian’s photo. The red ones should be much smaller than the white ones. You only need to add enough food colouring to turn the dough pink, as the colour will intensify upon cooking.
If you don’t want to use red food colouring, the recipes at KnowingFood.com suggest using 2-3 Tbs of beet juice for 200g of glutinous rice flour. Alternatively, I’ve seen a Japanese recipe that uses red rice powder 紅穀粉: 1/2 tsp of red rice powder to 20g of glutinous rice flour. (Anyone know where to buy red rice powder 紅穀粉 in Singapore? Is it the usual red rice available in the supermarket which can then be ground at home?)
According to Nonya Flavours: A Complete Guide to Penang Straits Chinese Cuisine, seven colours were traditionally made: white, red, pink, yellow, green, blue and orange. There are ways to produce chewy balls in different colours without relying on artificial colouring by using yam, sweet potato, pumpkin etc. and I’ll write more about this in future. [22/12/07 Update: see my attempt at making five-coloured glutinous rice balls without a drop of artificial food colouring here :).][23/12/07 Update: new list of natural colourings for glutinous rice dough here.]
The sweet soup that tang yuan is served in varies according to regional traditions and from family to family. The most basic is a simple light rock sugar syrup flavoured with pandan leaf, sometimes with a couple of slices of old ginger, such as this recipe.
Susan Chua’s blog has a recipe for a soup made from dark brown sugar, red dates, dried longan and pandan leaves (with an option to roll the tang yuan in ground peanut instead of serving in the soup), while Cheat Eat uses a soup from fermented glutinous rice and osmanthus flowers, 桂花酒酿. Soya bean milk, or a sweet soup of boiled groundnuts are other alternatives. My own family tradition is to eat tang yuan in a distinctively Straits Chinese style: in a soup made from coconut milk and gula melaka (palm sugar).
In Penang Hokkien dialect (listen to the Penang Hokkien Podcast for a taste of the colloquial lingo!), tang yuan is known as kueh (kuih) ee 粿圓. Read this article for more on on the tradition and varieties of kuih ee in Penang today.