Illustrations by Rhia Cook // @rhiacookmakes
My mother and I have never quite mastered it, the art of making tang yuan (汤圆). Each December, on the 21st – the winter solstice – we would look at each other and roll our eyes. Shall we? More often than not, in the end we’d decide: yes, we shall.
It was okay that we were bad at it: if you’ve never tried, I can tell you that it is hard to make perfect little orbs out of glutinous rice flour. The flour is fine as corn flour and just as flyaway; it is difficult to get the ratio of water to flour just right. Too much or too hot and your tang yuan will not hold together, resulting in unsightly cracks and breaks; too little, and the mixture will be too sticky to manipulate into tang yuan at all. It is possible, of course, to get the mix just right: whole families must do, and do so annually, coming together to roll the rice dumplings in honour of the Dongzhi festival and the reunion it denotes. But we were not one of those families.
Tang yuan are not always made out of rice flour alone. These days you see them just as frequently, if not more so, stuffed with sweet pastes made out of black sesame, crushed peanuts and sugar, or red bean. These can be bought frozen in Asian grocery stores year-round and, when I was a child, I used to love them. I’ve never, however, managed to convince a Western friend that tang yuan present an attractive option as dessert. There are some things Westerners seem to have trouble getting their head around: beans in dessert is one thing, glutinous rice balls is another. But to my mind they are delicious: chewy, sweet, oozing. The liquid they are served in is tasty too; sometimes a ginger syrup, sometimes a slightly alcoholic rice wine.
When my mother and I made our own, we would play with the flour, like a pair of toddlers messing with playdoh. The kitchen counters and utensils would become coated in the chalky white powder, as though we were dusting for fingerprints. Once we began mixing, everything we touched would be smeared with pallid white paste. Every year we did our best to roll balls, but every year, what we got were lumps.
Once we set those lumps to boil in a pan of hot water, they’d either become even lumpier-looking, or else they’d completely disintegrate, resulting in a greyed, rice flour soup that looked like nothing so much as dishwater. We found it hilarious. In the extended family Whatsapp group, uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters, cousins and nieces and nephews, would send cute pictures of their own tang yuan throughout the day, a handful of multicoloured spheres nestling in sweet liquid, often with a smiling face emoji pasted on top of at least one round tang yuan’s ‘face’. Eating these miniature globes is meant to bring luck; not only the tang yuan themselves but the round bowls they are served in are meant to signify wholeness, cohesion – hence the family reunion. Being the solstice, the date of the festival also marks the joyful turn of the seasons: after December 21st, days start to become gradually longer again, and light starts returning.
Unlike the others, my mother and I never made any special effort with our tang yuan preparations – as I mentioned, the decision to make them at all was usually spontaneous. Were we in the mood? Yes we were. Or, no we weren’t – big deal, maybe we’d do it the next day, as though we were Winnie-the-Pooh having a Dongzhi un-birthday. We couldn’t be bothered to go and see all those uncles and aunts; we didn’t like big crowds, the inane chatter, the superficial catch-ups. So we had our own, two-person reunion. There was always rice flour somewhere in the kitchen, a plastic container caked with floury fingerprints and lurking on a high shelf. At other times of the year my mother used it on her face – letting a paste of rice flour and water dry on the skin does wonders for the complexion (try it, I swear your skin will feel wonderfully soft after you wash it off) – and periodically, we’d make thin, sweet pancakes out of rice flour and coconut milk. We never used a recipe. We weren’t the recipe type of people. On the solstice we would look at the moon, some years as large and round as a tang yuan itself, laugh at our family’s group pictures and say, Who cares, we prefer our lumps.
Emilia's piece was originally published in our second issue, Winter's Traditions. Pick up your copy here: