Food is an integral part of Taiwanese culture. Many cultures make that claim, but the more I learn about Taiwanese culture the more I realise this is true. Even a festival about lanterns also involves eating a special dessert — tāngyuán (湯圓), a sticky-rice dumpling often filled with sweet black sesame paste or red bean paste.
The Chinese lantern festival (元宵节 — yuánxiāo jié) is celebrated on the fifteenth day of the first month of the Chinese lunar calendar. Coming just over a fortnight after the start of the lunar New Year, it marks the end of festivities. Taiwan celebrates the lantern festival with a large lantern display; cities vie for the privilege to host and this year it is in Hsinchu.
But you don’t need to travel to enjoy the Lantern Festival. Taipei also puts on a display, which this year is at the former Flora Expo site. Last year I loved walking around the lantern festival at the Sun Yat-sen Memorial , framed against the backdrop of the biggest lantern of all — Taipei 101 lit up in LED lights and special Chinese New Year messages. While it does not have a larger display this year, the memorial hall is once again decked out with skilfully painted lanterns that include riddles (dēngmí, 燈謎). My Chinese is not good enough to understand, let alone solve the riddles, but I love looking at the artwork. And commercial districts, notably the mall around the Shin Kong Mitsukoshi department stores in Xinyi, are festive around Chinese New Year.
Even if you don’t go out to enjoy the lanterns, it can still be fun indoors. The traditional thing to eat is a soup containing sticky rice balls , known as tangyuan. (Just to confuse, tangyuan are also traditionally eaten at winter solstice, called dōngzhì 冬至.) The roundness symbolises completeness and family unity, important traits to remember at Chinese New Year. My tangyuan were a bit rough; hardly supermarket standard. But it was fun making them together with my toddler and the freshly roasted sesame mixture tasted soooo good.
1 cup glutinous rice flour
1/2 cup water (not exact, adjust as necessary)
1/4 cup black sesame seeds
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter or lard, melted
2 tablespoons sugar, extra
- Prepare the filling first. Toast the black sesame seeds in a heavy saucepan. Toss them gently to ensure they don’t burn; take them off the stove immediately if they begin to ‘pop’.
- Put the sesame seeds and sugar into a food processor, coffee grinder or blender. Pulse until fine, around 15 to 20 seconds or so.
- Tip into a bowl and add the melted butter or lard. Stir to combine and then put into the fridge to harden.
- Slow add water to the flour, mixing to form a firm dough (aim for ‘play doh’ consistency, firm yet still slightly glossy). You might not need to use all the water (I didn’t).
- Tip the dough out onto a floured board or bench. Roll gently into a long snake, and cut into pieces.
- Form each piece into a ball, shape a hole in the middle and add a small spoonful of the hardened black sesame paste mixture. (Arguably it might work better if you formed the black sesame mixture into a small ball first, but I was lazy.) Gently close the flour dough to form to enclose the mixture, and roll to form a ball. Set aside on a floured plate until needed.
- Bring a few cups of water to the boil in a saucepan. Add the tangyuan and cook until they float: around five minutes. Ladle out into bowls.
- Add remaining sugar to the water in the saucepan and stir until dissolved. Spoon this mixture over the tangyuan to form a ‘soup’.