I'm a born and bred Singaporean and Biren is a transplanted born and bred Malaysian, cooking up a storm every day in her Minnesota kitchen. Surprisingly, it's only happened once so far and we're crossing fingers that it won't happen again. For a peek at our past Nona Nona features, click here.
The decision for this month's theme fell on me, and I decreed (oops! My power trip is showing under the hem of my skirt ) that we do a "December" theme, which opens up our scope to include any food, from anywhere in the world, eaten for any reason, in everyone's favourite month, DECEMBER, and hopefully steers us away from the archetypal year end roast turkey, curry devil, mince pie or sugee cake.
Tang yuan is a simple but charming dessert that originates from China though the name "tang yuan" is southern Chinese, while Northerners call them yuan xiao. No surprise they go by their southern moniker in Singapore, seeing as how the local Chinese community here overwhelmingly has southern Chinese roots.
Traditionally, tang yuan is eaten at the family dinner on the first full moon of the Lunar New Year (Chap Goh Meh or Fifteenth Day of the new year) or in December, on the first day of Winter or Winter Solstice (Dong Zhi), usually the twenty-first or twenty-second day of December. This is the shortest day of the year and the Chinese believe eating tang yuan on this day, will ensure all ensuing days will have more sunlight and therefore, more positive energy or good chi . Sunlight is good, sunlight is desirable. Don't believe me? Watch a vampire movie, the kind where the fanged protagonist doesn't sparkle prettily in the sun.
Their association with Winter Solstice also makes them a handy marker for the passing of another year and for this reason, they are also served to birthday celebrants to symblolise another notch in their life expectancy post and another drop of wisdom in their bucket of experience. In practice though, they are gobbled down appreciatively all year round. Makes complete sense not to limit something so accessible and delicious to specific days of the year.
In essence, tang yuan is sticky rice flour balls in a flavoured clear syrup or sweet bean, seed or nut soup. They can be stuffed with traditional fillings like sweetened red bean paste, sesame seed paste, peanut meal or peanut paste or left unfilled. Generally, plain rice flour balls are served in a more elaborate sweet soup made with red or green beans, sesame seeds or peanuts. Filled balls are usually served in a clear flavoured syrup.
These are no longer hard and fast rules though and you can have your filled sticky rice balls in a fancy chunky soup or plain rice balls in a simple syrup, if that's what floats your foodie boat. They may be left white, but for the more artistic or visually oriented, pastel tints are a nice touch. I tell you, I am loving all this culinary anarchy, since the emergence of varietal, new world wines ;)
I stuffed mine with purple sweet potatoes because I like purple food, purple sweet potatoes are crazy sweet and don't need additional sugar and sweet potato mash is way, way easier then sesame, red bean or peanut paste. Bet you didn't know this, but red beans, those sweet, winsome little legumes take an evil 4 hours to cook down to the required consistency, and I just didn't want to tangle with my pressure cooker and sticky rice dough, on the same day...
There's no doubt these bright, sweet and chewy orbs are a treat, but they're more than just a pretty face. To the Chinese, as with all things round, spherical and circular, they symbolise unity, wholeness, togetherness, harmony in the family and continuity, presumably of all things good and desirable. When eating them together with family, one manifests a wish for a sweet, harmonious life, unbreakable family bonds, unending good fortune, longer days and a shorter work week for bloodsuckers, who far as I know, have no union behind them. Sounds good to me! Two bowls over here please, and happy December everyone :) Now let's head over to Biren's warm and cosy kitchen to see what she's got for us!
sweet potato tang yuan
Prep 50 mins Cook 25 mins Serves 4
2 small sweet potatoes (about 300 g total unpeeled weight) peeled and steamed, boiled or microwaved till tender
1/4 tsp salt
200 g (2 cups) glutinous rice flour (sticky rice flour)
150 ml (3/4 cup) water - you may need to add 1 - 2 more tbs depending on the flour absorbancy
2 tbsp sugar
A few drops food colouring of your choice (optional)
600 ml (3 cups) water
75 g (1/2 cup) sugar
6 pandan leaves, washed and knotted
3 large slices peeled ginger (optional - but adds a nice bite and prevents wind in the tummy, from the sweet potatoes)
Thoroughly mash the sweet potatoes with the salt until very smooth. You should have 250 g sweet potato mash. Set aside until cool then roll into 24 balls. Cover and refrigerate.
Combine flour, water and 2 tablespoons sugar in mixing bowl and mix then knead together until smooth and bowl is clean. If mixture seems crumbly and doesn't come together after a some kneading, add more water by the tablespoon and knead until it does. Don't add too much at once. The line between too wet and too dry is pretty fine. Too wet and the dough will stick like the devil to everything. Too dry and it will crumble at every touch. You should have 400 g dough.
Add colouring to the dough if using, and knead in thoroughly.
Divide dough into 24 even sized balls. Flatten each into a disc and put a ball of sweet potato in the middle. Cover sweet potato with the rice dough and seal completely. Dampen surface of balls with wet finger tips and roll between your palms to get them completely sealed and smooth.
Cover stuffed balls.
Combine the water, 75 g sugar, pandan leaves and ginger in a pot and bring to the boil. Lower heat and simmer until pandan fragrance is pronounced. Turn off heat and cover to keep hot.
Boil another pot of water. Using a flat bladed spatula, slide under balls and gently prise them off plate. If you just lift them off the plate, a chunk of dough will remain on the plate and the base of your ball will have a hole, exposing the filling. If this happens, pinch off a small piece of dough from the remaining dough or from another filled ball and patch the hole. Dampen slightly and pat or roll until smooth.
Gently lower rice flour balls, about 8 at a time into boiling water. Lower heat to medium and cook until balls float - about 6 or 7 minutes. Push balls apart if they stick to each other. If they remain at the bottom of the pot after a few minutes, they might be stuck. Gently scrape of from bottom of pot with a steel spatula. Remove from pot, rinse off starch in cold water and transfer to syrup. Repeat with remaining balls.
Discard the ginger and pandan from the syrup and ladle the balls and syrup into individual Chinese soup bowls. Serve hot, warm or chilled.