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Toisan savory tang yuan (glutinous rice ball soup)

In my culture, we eat savory tang yuan to celebrate the annual Winter Solstice Festival (冬至; Dōngzhì)! It’s a special time celebrated by Chinese and other East Asian cultures to signal that winter has come, and it’s a time to gather and celebrate with our families. Winter Solstice is the shortest day and longest night of the year — which means that every day following it is filled with increasing daylight, a metaphor for an incoming flow of positive energy.

For my family, who originates from southern China, we eat glutinous rice balls in soup, or tangyuan (汤圆). If you’re Chinese, you’re probably familiar with the sweet version of tangyuan — they’re sometimes filled with black sesame paste or peanuts, and served in a light, sweet ginger broth.

Why do we eat tangyuan during winter solstice?

In the light research I did, I couldn’t find a definitive reason for the origin of eating tangyuan during the winter solstice. My dad, who (embarrassingly) realized he didn’t know the reason either, called up his old teacher on WeChat to find out.

If you’re familiar with Chinese food culture, you already know that there’s always a reason behind the dishes we choose to eat during special occasions, and that they’re often symbolic. Go to a traditional Chinese wedding or birthday celebration, and you’re likely to eat noodles, because they represent longevity. And there’s always fish, because the word in Chinese (鱼; ) sounds like the word for plentiful and abundance (裕; ).

According to my dad’s old teacher, we eat tangyuan because the word sounds similar to tuányuán (团圆), which means reunion. Winter is the time of the year where families get reunited, it’s the time during the year where kids get to take a break from school and return home. When my mom explained this to me, she related this similarity to Western culture, “It’s the same way Americans get together for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, and everyone shares a big meal together.”

What ingredients do you need to make a bowl of tangyuan?

Like I said above, if you’re Chinese, you’re probably familiar with the sweet version of this dish, where the glutinous rice balls are served plain, or filled with black sesame paste or peanuts in a light and sweet ginger soup.

Something I learned (thank you, Subtle Cantonese Traits Facebook group) is that the savory tangyuan I’ve been eating my whole life is very specific to those from Taishanese (a region in southern China) descent, and that many Chinese people have never seen or tasted it! The one pictured above is what my mom makes every year, and aside from glutinous rice balls, the dish includes a bunch of other ingredients like Chinese lo bok (radish), fish paste, napa cabbage, mushrooms, dried shrimp, and my favorite, Chinese sausage.

According to my mom, all the ingredients exist to balance each other out in the soup. Glutinous rice balls aren’t particularly healthy — they’re high in calories and seen as a “hot” food, whereas vegetables like daikon and napa cabbage are “cool” and keep the dish relatively healthy and balanced.

Traditionally, the fish paste is homemade from dace, which is found in abundance during the winter in China. This type of fish contains a ton of bones — a trait that makes it really annoying to eat, but also incredibly sweet and a flavorful agent for the broth. (Since dace is harder to find here in the US, my mom buys frozen dace cakes/paste from the Asian supermarket.) To get extra flavor, the fish paste is pan-fried first, then added to the broth. The broth gets all its flavors from the ingredients — there’s even no need for extra flavor from bones or chicken broth.

As a kid, I didn’t give much thought to the Winter Solstice Festival, but what I did recall was making and eating tangyuan with my family. Now that I understand what it means, and especially how unique the savory version is to my family.

Wishing you and your loved ones a safe, happy, and healthy holiday!

You may also like these other Chinese soups:

If you enjoyed this Toisan savory tang yuan recipe…

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Toisan Savory Tang Yuan (Glutinous Rice Ball Soup)

This comforting, hearty soup we eat every winter solstice is not only a symbol of coming together with family, but is also incredibly delicious!
Prep Time 1 hour 15 minutes
Cook Time 30 minutes
Total Time 1 hour 45 minutes
Course Main Course
Cuisine Asian, Chinese
Servings 8

Ingredients
  

Glutinous rice balls:

  • 1 lb glutinous rice flour
  • 1.5-1.75 cups hot water

Pork and marinade (adding this is optional to the soup but is how my family makes it)

  • 5 oz pork tenderloin or another cut of lean pork
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp soy sauce
  • 1/16 tsp white pepper
  • 2 tbsp water
  • 1 tsp cornstarch
  • 1 tsp neutral oil

Other toppings:

  • 6 oz seasoned fish paste
  • 2 Chinese sausages
  • 4-6 dried shiitakes
  • 2-3 oz of dried shrimp and/or dried scallop
  • 2 lb Chinese lo bok Chinese radish / turnip
  • 2 lb long napa cabbage
  • 10 cups of homemade or good quality chicken broth
  • 1 tsp salt or to taste
  • 1/2 tsp chicken bouillon powder optional
  • Neutral oil for cooking

Garnish:

  • cilantro
  • scallions
  • white pepper to taste
  • soy sauce to taste

Instructions
 

Prepare the ingredients

  • Rinse the dried shiitakes, dried shrimp, and dried scallops (if using). Add them to a bowl with 2 cups of hot water, cover the bowl, and let rehydrate.
    4-6 dried shiitakes, 2-3 oz of dried shrimp and/or dried scallop
  • (Optional) If adding pork to the soup, slice it into strips, then add it to a bowl with salt, sugar, soy sauce, white pepper, and water. Mix well. Once the water is absorbed, add the cornstarch and mix again. Finally, add the neutral oil, and do a final mix. Set aside to marinade while you prep the other ingredients.
    5 oz pork tenderloin, 1/4 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp sugar, 1/2 tsp soy sauce, 1/16 tsp white pepper, 2 tbsp water, 1 tsp neutral oil, 1 tsp cornstarch
  • Slice the Chinese sausages diagonally on a bias.
    2 Chinese sausages
  • Peel the Chinese lo bok (radish) until you get to the more translucent layer. This removes the tough, fibrous skin. Slice into matchsticks.
    2 lb Chinese lo bok
  • Slice the long napa cabbage into strips.
    2 lb long napa cabbage
  • Once the shiitakes and dried shrimp are rehydrated, squeeze out all the excess water, and save the soaking water. Remove the tough stems, and slice the caps into strips.

Pan fry the fish cake (if needed)

  • If your fish paste isn’t seasoned, season lightly with salt and white pepper.
    6 oz seasoned fish paste
  • (Optional) Put the seasoned fish paste into a bowl, add a little water and cornstarch, and mix in one direction with chopsticks or your hands until it’s sticky and bouncy like dumpling filling. Doing this will give it a bouncier texture.
  • Add some oil to a pre-heated pan, and flatten the fish cake into a large pancake. Pan-fry one side until golden brown, then flip and repeat until both sides are nicely golden.
    Neutral oil for cooking
  • Remove from the pan, and slice into strips.

Make the glutinous rice balls

  • In a large mixing bowl, add the glutinous rice flour (save a small handful of flour on the side for dusting the work surface later). Bring the water to a boil, let cool just slightly, and slowly pour in the water in 3 batches, mixing thoroughly with chopsticks in between each pour to let the flour absorb the liquid.
    1 lb glutinous rice flour, 1.5-1.75 cups hot water
  • The dough may still look very dry, but start kneading (be careful, as it will be quite hot!), and the dough will slowly become more hydrated and pick up more flour.
  • If the dough is still very dry and doesn’t pick up the rest of the flour, add a little more hot water. If the dough is still very sticky, add some more flour. Knead for 6-8 minutes or until dough is very shiny and smooth. My mom likes to knead it for a few extra minutes for a chewier texture.
  • Cover the dough with a wet paper towel to keep it from drying out.
  • Take a portion of the dough, and roll it out into a long cylinder that’s about 3/4 inch thick. Peel off thumb-sized pieces from this, and roll each piece into a round ball. Place the rolled balls onto a floured surface or tray so they don’t stick to each other.
  • Repeat until you’ve used up all the dough.

Make the soup and combine

  • Heat up a large pot or wok (that will fit this whole soup) on medium-high heat, and add neutral oil. Add the dried shrimp (and scallops if using), and stir fry for 1 minute to release its fragrance.
    Neutral oil for cooking
  • Add the Chinese sausage, and stir fry for another minute or two to release its fats and flavor.
  • Add the shiitakes, and stir fry for another minute.
  • Finally, add the pan-fried fish cake, chicken broth, and mushroom soaking water. Bring it all up to a boil.
    10 cups of homemade or good quality chicken broth
  • Once boiling, add the sliced Chinese lo bok. Submerge the lo bok and let it simmer just until they become translucent. They should be firm and still be able to hold their shape.
  • Add the napa cabbage and marinated pork (if using), and cook until just cabbage is slightly softened. 
  • Now we’re going to cook the tang yuan in the flavorful broth. First, remove all the ingredients from the soup and set aside, making sure to leave all the broth in the pot. You can do this with a slotted spoon or strainer.
  • Add the tang yuan to the broth, and simmer until the tang yuan floats. This means it’s ready! Don’t cook it for much longer after this, as they get soft very easily.
  • Add the ingredients all back into the soup. Season to taste with salt and chicken bouillon powder (if needed).
    1 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp chicken bouillon powder
  • Serve hot into bowls with scallions, cilantro, white pepper, and soy sauce (optional).
    cilantro, scallions, white pepper, soy sauce
Keyword savory tang yuan, tang yuan, toisan savory tang yuan, tong yoon, tong yuen
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