Lantern Festival food: making black sesame tangyuan

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.

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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. 

Xinyi Place, decorated with lanterns for Chinese New Year

Xinyi Place, decorated with lanterns for Chinese New Year

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.

A bowl of black sesame tangyuan, ready to eat

A bowl of black sesame tangyuan, ready to eat

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.

Ingredients:

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

Method:

  1. 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’.
  2. Put the sesame seeds and sugar into a food processor, coffee grinder or blender.  Pulse until fine, around 15 to 20 seconds or so. 

    A bowl of finely ground black sesame seeds and sugar

    A bowl of finely ground black sesame seeds and sugar

  3. Tip into a bowl and add the melted butter or lard.  Stir to combine and then put into the fridge to harden.

    Black sesame mixture ready to use

    Black sesame mixture ready to use

  4. 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).

    Add the water to the flour; do it gradually and stop when you get to the desired consistency

    Add the water to the flour; do it gradually and stop when you get to the desired consistency

  5. Tip the dough out onto a floured board or bench.  Roll gently into a long snake, and cut into pieces. 
  6. 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.

    Forming a shell from the dough in which to put the sesame paste.  Mine are hardly professional standard, but practice makes perfect!

    Forming a shell from the dough in which to put the sesame paste. Mine are hardly professional standard, but practice makes perfect!

  7. 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. 
  8. Add remaining sugar to the water in the saucepan and stir until dissolved.  Spoon this mixture over the tangyuan to form a ‘soup’.
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About taiwanxifu

‘Taiwanxifu’ (pronounced ‘shee foo’) means ‘Taiwan daughter-in-law’ in Chinese and has been my nickname ever since I married my Taiwanese husband, Sam. I love sampling Taiwanese food, even local specialties such as stinky tofu, pigs blood cake and Taipei beef noodle soup with offal. But there are many other options on the menu. Promise!
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2 Responses to Lantern Festival food: making black sesame tangyuan

  1. Wendy Su-Cole says:

    mmm..I miss eating this. I can only get frozen stuff here :(
    I”m sure yours tasted really good.

    • taiwanxifu says:

      Frozen can be good, so long as it is relatively fresh. I thought the filling, having been freshly toasted, tasted especially good but I must be honest and say there wasn’t so much difference with the sticky-rice dumpling.

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