Traditionally eaten during the Lantern Festival, sweet tang yuan evolved from a purely symbolic food to a sweet snack (or dessert) eaten all year round. The filling can be black sesame paste, lotus paste, red bean paste or chocolate.
If you’re wondering why it says sweet tang yuan above, that’s because tang yuan can be savory too. Ground meat, mushrooms and vegetables are common fillings.
The filling used in this recipe is homemade. Had we been able to source good ready-to-use red bean paste, we would have skipped making the filling. But what we had was dry azuki beans so they were cooked to mushiness, sweetened and used as filling.
Know, however, that the way the red bean paste was cooked is just one of two ways that it is traditionally made in Chinese cooking. There are more variations in Japanese and Korean cuisines, but this is essentially our version of a Chinese dish, so, let’s stick with the Chinese method.
This is the method used for making the filling in this recipe. The beans are boiled, mashed and sweetened. No straining so all parts of the beans are kept.
In our case, the red beans were rinsed and transferred to the slow cooker where they cooked for eight hours. An immersion blender was used to mash them. Then, the mashed beans were transferred to a pot, sugar and a bit of salt were added, and the mixture was cooked until the sugar and salt dissolved and blended with the beans. How much sugar you need for the red bean paste depends on how sweet you want it.
To make smooth red bean paste, the boiled beans are mashed, water is stirred in and the mixture is strained to remove the husks. The watery mashed beans are then placed on a cheesecloth, the water is allowed to drip off and the strained paste is squeezed and sweetened with sugar. To give the paste a silkier texture, oil or lard is sometimes mixed in.
How to make glutinous rice balls
First, you make a dough. You need only two ingredients: glutinous rice flour and water. Note the glutinous part. Rice flour is sold as regular rice flour or glutinous rice flour. The latter is made with a special rice variety with grains that turn sticky when cooked. That’s what you want to make the rice balls. Ordinary rice flour won’t do.
Just mix the glutinous rice flour with enough water to make a soft dough that’s dry to the touch. You may optionally add a few drops of food color to make colored rice balls. In this recipe, the dough was divided into three. Red food color was added to one portion, yellow food color was added to the second portion and the third portion was left in its original color.
The glutinous rice dough was divided into smaller portions. Each portion was flattened, stuffed with red bean paste, the edges were gathered to seal the filling and the filled dough was rolled into a ball.
The filled rice balls were dropped into a pot of boiling water. Since only one pot was used to cook the rice balls, the white ones were boiled first, then the yellow ones and, finally, the red ones. That’s to prevent the colored rice balls from bleeding into the white ones.
Each batch of rice balls was left to cook until the balls floated to the surface. That’s the sign that they were cooked through. The balls were scooped out, placed in bowls, doused with pandan-ginger sugar syrup (making the syrup is included in the recipe below) and served.
Glutinous rice balls with sweet red bean paste (tang yuan)
Slow cooker red bean paste
- 250 grams red beans (azuki)
- ½ cup sugar
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 cup glutinous rice flour
- 1 pinch salt
Make the read bean paste
- Rinse the red mung beans several times and drain.
- Place the beans in the slow cooker, pour in enough water to cover them by four inches, and cook on LOW for eight hours.
- Using an immersion blender, puree the red mung beans into a paste.
- Transfer the pureed beans to a pot (it will still appear thin at this point), add the sugar and salt, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, until the mixture is a thick paste.
- Cool the red bean filling.
Make the syrup
- In a small pan, stir together the sugar and salt with a cup of water.
- Drop in the pandan leaves and ginger slices.
- Cook over high heat for five minutes.
- Leave to cool (do not remove the pandan leaves and ginger).
Make the rice balls
- In a bowl, stir just enough water into the glutinous rice flour to form a dough.
- Divide the dough into three portions.
- Add a few drops of red food color to one portion of the dough and knead until uniformly incorporated.
- Add a few drops of yellow food color to another portion of the dough and knead until the coloring is even.
- Divide each portion of the dough into one-inch balls.
- Flatten each ball in the palm of your hand, place teaspoonful of read bean paste at the center and gather the edges to seal in the filling.
- Bring a pot of water to a rolling boil.
- Drop in the rice balls and cook until they float to the surface.
Serve the tang yuan
- Scoop out the rice balls and divide among four bowls.
- Ladle syrup over the balls and serve.