An aromatic, lava-like black sesame filling wrapped in a silky, gooey wrapper, Tang Yuan is a delectable treat essential to many Chinese festivals.
What is Tang Yuan
Tang Yuan/汤圆, also known as Yuan Xiao/元宵 or Chinese glutinous rice balls, is a round, stuffed Chinese dessert made of glutinous rice flour and a sweet, semi-runny filling.
It’s always served warm in a plain or sweetened liquid. The outer layer has a soft, gooey texture that resembles that of mochi but it also delivers a silky mouthfeel that tastes quite unique. The filling, such as black sesame paste, red bean paste, peanut filling, etc, stands out for its aromatic flavor and lava-like consistency.
Unlike many other classic Chinese desserts, such as Mooncakes or Zongzi (Sticky rice dumplings), which are tied to particular occasions, Tang Yuan is associated with several traditional festivals: Winter Solstice Festival (Dong Zhi/冬至), Chinese New Year (Spring Festival/春节) and the Lantern Festival (Yuan Xiao Jie/元宵节).
Apart from these special occasions, Tang Yuan is enjoyed all year round in our Red House. We absolutely adore its aromatic flavor and gooey texture. Also, it’s so convenient to freeze a big batch and cook it whenever we fancy a bowlful.
It’s also a great dessert to serve at dinner parties where you could have guests with different dietary requirements. It’s gluten-free and vegetarian/vegan-friendly.
Here are a few helpful tips before I explain how to make Tang Yuan from scratch.
- Prepare the filling first as it needs to be chilled before assembly.
- Adjust the dough consistency freely when necessary.
- Use natural ingredients to color the dough for a fun look.
- Make a big batch then freeze them for later use.
How to make the filling
Typically, Tang Yuan is filled with sweet, paste-like fillings. But savory fillings also exist. Ready-made sweet fillings are available in Chinese stores but I often find them overly sweet. This Tang Yuan recipe introduces homemade black sesame filling which, I’d say, is the most popular option.
Black sesame paste
To make black sesame filling for Tang Yuan, you’d need three basic ingredients:
- Black sesame seeds. White sesame seeds would work too if you aren’t after the “authentic” look.
- Sugar, white or brown
- A type of fat that helps to create a lava consistency as well as to add a rich flavor. It can be butter, coconut oil (for a vegan diet), or lard (the traditional choice)
It takes three simple steps to prepare the filling:
- Toast raw black sesame seeds in a dry pan. Stir constantly and observe attentively. When the flat seeds plump up and become very easy to break when crushed with your fingers, they’re done. Do not overcook to avoid a burning taste (Skip this step if your shop-bought seeds have already been toasted).
- Grind the toasted seeds and sugar in a food processor, blender or spice grinder. Run the machine on full power with several intervals (to avoid overheating) until a fine, soft, oily paste appears.
- Stir in the fat content of your choice (butter, coconut oil or lard) and mix well. Refrigerate it for a while to firm up for easy assembly (in the freezer if it’s very soft).
If you’re interested, read my post dedicated to black sesame paste to learn more about how to use it in other recipes.
Other filling options
Looking for more filling ideas? Other choices include red bean paste, peanut filling, five-nut filling, etc.
Take the peanut filling for example. A shortcut version is to add sugar to peanut butter (the thick, chunky version works best) then mix well. Freeze for a short while to firm up before assembly.
How to make the dough
It’s super easy to make the dough for Tang Yuan. Glutinous rice flour and water are all that you need.
Also known as sweet rice flour, glutinous rice flour is finely milled glutinous rice (Nuo Mi/糯米). It has the same color and texture as cornstarch and it’s the key ingredient for many Chinese sweet treats, such as Sesame Balls, Nian Gao (Chinese New Year Rice Cake), etc.
Compared to Chinese dumpling dough, Tang Yuan dough takes much less time to make as there is no resting required. Also, it’s much more forgiving so you can easily adjust its consistency.
- Add glutinous rice flour to a mixing bowl. Firstly, pour in boiling water while stirring with a spatula.
- Then gradually add room temperature water.
- Combine and knead by hand until a soft, smooth dough forms.
🛎 Troubleshoot: The dough consistency
The finished dough should be quite soft and pliable but not at all sticky. Please feel free to adjust its texture by adding more water if too hard or adding more flour if sticky. You can make these adjustments at any stage of the dough preparation.
How to color the dough
If you want to give classic white Tang Yuan a makeover, use some natural ingredients to make them colorful (Like how I make colorful dumplings). Here are some options:
- Make a pink dough by replacing part of the water with beetroot juice (that’s what I did when shooting this recipe).
- Use matcha powder or spinach juice to make the dough green.
- Carrot juice would give the dough an orange tint.
How to assemble
Assembling Tang Yuan isn’t as complicated as it may seem. This type of dough is much more forgiving than wheat flour-based dough and there isn’t any fancy pleating needed (you’ll find it easier than folding dumplings).
Before assembly, divide both the dough and the filling into equal portions. Then roll each piece into a ball shape.
Use your fingers to flatten a piece of dough into a disc a little larger than the diameter of the filling ball. Place a portion of the filling in the middle.
Gently push the dough upwards to tightly wrap around the filling. Then seal it completely.
🛎 Troubleshoot: Cracked dough
Since Tang Yuan dough doesn’t stretch much, you might find it easy to crack while assembling if your dough is a little too dry. Don’t panic if this happens. Simply wet the broken part with a tiny layer of water, then gently rub with your finger to reseal.
- Remember to cover the dough balls with cling film or a damp towel to keep the moisture in if your kitchen is warm and dry.
- If your filling is on the soft side, put the divided balls in the fridge (or the freezer) for a short while. This will make wrapping a lot easier.
How to cook
Bring plenty of water to a full boil in a saucepan/pot. Gently add the assembled Tang Yuan. Push them around with the back of a spoon to avoid sticking to the bottom.
Leave to boil over medium-high heat. Once all the balls float up to the surface, cook for 1 more minute. Then fish them out and put into individual serving bowls.
How to serve
Depending on the region of China, Tang Yuan can be served in many different ways. The simplest way (what my family does) is to add a little cooking liquid to the bowl. This helps to keep the Tang Yuan warm for longer thus the filling stays runny.
Ginger syrup is a very popular serving liquid for Tang Yuan. If this is the version you’re looking for, follow these steps to make it:
- In a separate saucepan, simmer a small piece of smashed ginger and sugar (white, brown or rock sugar) in water for 3 minutes or so.
- Taste then adjust the flavor. Add more water if it’s too gingery or sweet. Cook a little longer if the ginger taste is too mild. Add more sugar if it isn’t sweet enough (But you wouldn’t want the serving liquid too sweet as the Tang Yuan is quite sweet on its own).
In other parts of China, another popular way to serve Tang Yuan is to add thick syrup made of dark brown sugar and then sprinkle toasted soybean powder over. This is my favorite version when I have those ingredients at hand.
I’ve also tried serving Tang Yuan in the juice of Pear with Rock Sugar (冰糖雪梨). It was very tasty and nourishing.
Make ahead & store
Make a big batch: You can double or triple the recipe by increasing the ingredient quantity proportionally. Just remember to cover unused dough very well to avoid drying out since it’ll take longer to assemble a big batch.
Store in the freezer: Immediately after the balls have been assembled, lay them in a single layer on a tray. Keep in the freezer until completely frozen. Then transfer them to an airtight container/bag and store in the freezer for up to 2 months.
Cook frozen Tang Yuan: Cook them the usual way without defrosting. After adding them to the boiling water, it will take a longer time for the water to come back to a boil. So cover the pot with a lid to speed up the process. Once the balls float up, uncover and cook for one more minute.
A: No. This recipe has to be made with glutinous rice flour. You can find it in Chinese/Asian stores and some online shopping platforms.
A: Here are some common causes: The filling wasn’t securely sealed by the dough leaving small cracks on the surface; the dough wasn’t even in thickness so the very thin, weak part broke as the filling expands when heated; they have been overcooked.
A: Yes, it’s fine to keep uncooked ones in the fridge for less than a day. You need to cover the balls very well to prevent them from drying out.
A: The flour-water ratio varies slightly depending on the brand of the flour and the humidity. If you find the dough too dense, simply add more water little by little then knead again until you get the desired texture.
A: Why not! Since Nutella has a rather runny consistency, you’d need to firm it up for easy shaping. For example, add some coconut flakes and mix well. Then chill in the fridge for a while.
Other festive dishes
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Tang Yuan, Chinese glutinous rice balls (汤圆)
For the filling
- ⅔ cup black sesame seeds
- 2½ tablespoon sugar - or to taste
- 2½ tablespoon softened butter - or coconut oil, lard
For the dough
- 1 cup glutinous rice flour
- 3 tablespoon boiling water
- 4 tablespoon room temperature water - or beetroot juice
Prepare the filling
- Toast black sesame seeds in a dry frying pan over low heat until they plump up and become very easy to break when crushed with your fingers (see note 1).
- Once completely cool, put the toasted black sesame seeds in a food processor. Grind them with sugar until they turn into a soft, shiny paste.
- Add butter (or coconut oil/lard). Mix to combine then keep refrigerated until the mixture is firm enough to handle.
- Divide the paste into 20 portions. Shape each piece into a ball. Put them back in the fridge while preparing the dough (see note 2).
Make the dough
- In a mixing bowl, pour boiling water into glutinous rice flour while stirring with a spatula. Then add room temperature water (or beetroot juice for a pink dough) little by little.
- Knead with your hand until a smooth, soft dough forms. Adjust its consistency by adding more water or flour (see note 3). If you are not using the dough straightaway, wrap it with cling film to avoid drying out.
- Divide the dough into 20 equal pieces then roll each into a ball.
Assemble Tang Yuan (please refer to the video below)
- Flatten a piece of dough into a round wrapper with your fingers.
- Place a ball of filling in the middle. Gently push the wrapper upwards to wrap the filling tightly. Seal at the top completely (see note 4).
Cook Tang Yuan
- Bring a large pot of water to a full boil. Gently slide in some Tang Yuan. If necessary, cook in batches as the balls expand while cooking so do not crowd the pot.
- Push the balls around with the back of a spoon to prevent them from sticking to the bottom of the pot. Cook over medium-high heat. Once all the balls start to float on the surface, boil for a further minute.
- Dish out (along with some cooking liquid) and serve warm. You may also make some ginger syrup separately as the serving liquid (see note 4).
Store Tang Yuan
- Freeze Tang Yuan right after they are assembled. Lay them in a single layer on a tray lined with parchment paper to freeze. Once totally frozen, put them in an air-tight bag and store in the freezer.
- To cook frozen Tang Yuan, follow the same cooking procedure (do not defrost).
NUTRITION DISCLOSURE: Nutritional information on this website is provided as a courtesy to readers. It should be considered estimates. Please use your own brand nutritional values or your preferred nutrition calculator to double check against our estimates.