The annual Winter Solstice Festival (冬至; Dōngzhì) is 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.
In northern China, the traditional dish to eat during the winter solstice is dumplings. 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. Although my family didn’t gather this year out of safety precautions, you can see that my mom dropped off a full container, which is the picture you see above 🙂
Why do we eat tangyuan?
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; yú) sounds like the word for plentiful and abundance (裕; yù).
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’s in 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 just this week (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 daikon, 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, it makes me more excited for next year’s Winter Solstice Festival where hopefully, we’ll be able to safely gather and celebrate together.
Wishing you and your loved ones a safe, happy, and healthy holiday!