What Is Yuan Xiao&Tang Yuan?–Chinese Sweet Rice Ball Soup

Family reunions and Chinese festivals often mean Tangyuan, a tasty meal that has been described by many as a hand-rolled ball of sweetness akin to a rolled-up dumpling and synonymous with family, state of harmony, and reunions. But what is it, exactly?

Tangyuan Meaning

If you have been to a Chinese festival or restaurant and you were served the sweet rice ball, then you have eaten tangyuan – you just didn’t know what it was or what its Chinese name is. Tangyuan is a big part of many Chinese festivals, and there is even a festival that is named after it. But whether you are going in for the Spring Festival or the Lantern Festival, or any other festival, Tangyuan will be served. What you need to know about this Chinese food type is that it is a ball-shaped type of food that is made of sweet glutinous rice flour.

You should also know that the pronunciation and the shape of these balls of rice are not just essential for the name and the creation of the sweet rice balls, but also the round shape of the sweet glutinous rice balls is a symbol of togetherness with loved ones, and in many celebrations, the sweet rice balls are always present because they are a symbol of the family reunions.

There even exists a lucky Chinese saying when eating tangyuan, which means happy family reunions. The saying can also be translated to mean round-table group gatherings.

Tang Yuan Types

tang yuan glutinous rice balls

The types of tang yuan differ based on the ingredients used to make the glutinous sweet rice. Here are the common types of tangyuan;

  • Ginger and rock sugar tangyuan
  • Fermented glutinous rice, also called the sweet osmanthus
  • The sweet balls of rice are often served in clear soup broth, red bean soup, black sesame soup, and other types of dessert soups.

Tangyuan History

Tangyuan is believed to have originated from an ancient Chinese city called Ningbo. This city is not only one of China’s oldest cities, but it’s also one of the most important of China’s trading ports. There are many other things that the city is associated with, but it is largely believed to have been one of the main starting points for the Maritime Silk Road, as well as the birthplace for the elegant, though ancient, Chinese poetry and landscape painting. But on top of all these, one thing makes the port city of Ningbo really stand out – the fact that it is home to China’s tastiest and most beloved foods called the tangyuan. Tangyuan has been described as the sweet dumpling that represents harmony and family (re)unions, and each winter, millions in Ningbo and the rest of China will sit down with the rest of their families, often under the full moon, where they will enjoy the most generous servings of tangyuan.

But did this dish originate from Ningbo? Well, despite the prevalence in this city and before spreading to other cities, this food which carries many names, is believed to date back to the ancient eras ruled by the Tang or the Ming Dynasty – specifically, the Yongle Era. At the time, it was known as yuan xiao from the yuan xiao festival that was celebrated in Northern China, and also a name that meant ‘the first evening’ that the festival took place, which was during the full moon, and soon after celebrations for the Chinese New Year. There exist Cantonese and Hakka varieties of the food too.

So how did it come to be? Well, according to legend, the food was discovered during Yuan Shikai’s rule that lasted from 1912 to 1916. This ruler disliked the name yuan xiao for the food because it sounded a lot like the phrase remove yuan, and so, the emperor ordered the name change to tangyuan, which is a moniker that means, quite literally, round balls dipped in soup, or the round dumplings. This is how the name came to be, but this food made of balls of sweet glutinous rice flour that is deep-fried or cooked in boiled water and served in syrup or hot broth dates back to the reign of the Tang Dynasty between 618 and 907AD.

When Was Tangyuan Invented?

The tangyuan is believed to have been invented in ancient China during the reign of the Tang dynasty (618-907AD). However, it got its name between 1912 and 1916 when president Shikai ruled China.

Who Invented Tangyuan?

The Tang Dynasty invented the rice dish, but more specifically, the invention was by the Ningbo people from Ningbo City, who are pretty much the very first people to eat these glutinous rice balls that were stuffed with lard black sesame seeds, as well as soft white sugar.

When To Eat Tangyuan?

Although anyone can eat tangyuan at any time, most Chinese people eat more of it during the Lantern Festival, also called the Dongzhi. This is a day that celebrates family, and the Chinese people are encouraged to spend the day with the family as they commemorate and bask under the first full moon.  

Why Eat Tang Yuan On Yuanxiao?

Tangyuan is eaten on the Yuanxiao celebration day because eating this meal is symbolic of the worship and appreciation for the moon.

Why Eat Tangyuan On Winter Solstice?

During the Winter Solstice, the Chinese people indulge in Tangyuan as one of the main meals for the festival because these sweet rice balls symbolize harmony, auspicious households, and cohesiveness in the family.

Why Do We Eat Tangyuan?

In addition to the fact that the meal is quite sweet, people eat tangyuan because it is the meal that represents the importance of family and being in harmony with each other. The meal also symbolizes family.

How To Make Tangyuan

Making tangyuan is rather time-consuming, but the results are impressive.

First, their black sesame seeds are crushed using a rolling pin before these seeds are stir-fried in the pan. The fried ground seeds are then mixed with pork belly fat or lard and sugar, creating a dark filling for the rice balls. Next, you add some cold water to the glutinous rice flour to make the dough. Then you use a small cup or round shape using the dough before wrapping in the dark fillings and rolling it into a ball in your palm. These balls are then boiled in water, brown sugar, and ginger mixture for all the ingredients to melt into each other. The rice balls are ready when they float on the broth or soup, and this is when you turn the heat off. You may want to sprinkle some osmanthus flowers on the rice balls before serving.

How To Make Tang Yuan Soup

For the soup, you only need to mix and boil the ingredients, depending on the flavors and taste you prefer.

Difference Between Yuanxiao And Tangyuan

While tangyuan is rolled using your bare hands, you’ll need a flat bamboo basket that is cube-shaped for the yuan xiao, and then you’d sprinkle the mixture with rice flour and water, shaking the basket back and forth until you have the balls. So, Yuanxiao balls end up being chewier and drier than the tangyuan. Also, tangyuan is served on a thin soup, unlike yuan xiao, which is served in a thick broth.

Tang Yuan Festival

Also known as the Dongzhi festival, the tangyuan festival marks an important celebration for the changes in the seasons. It welcomes the warm and light spring days.

2 thoughts on “What Is Yuan Xiao&Tang Yuan?–Chinese Sweet Rice Ball Soup”

  1. on the last part, Dongzhi festival is actually to welcome winter days, as 冬至 means winter solstice. tang yuan usually will be eaten on that day. whereas, yuanxiao is to welcomes spring days, on the 15 day of the Chinese New Year celebration. it is also custom to eat tang yuan on this day too.

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