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Tang Yuan are glutinous rice balls or dumplings of Chinese origin, eaten especially during festive periods such as the Winter Solstice or on special occasions such as weddings. Traditionally made by hand, frozen and ready-to-cook versions have since popped up at supermarkets and are pretty much commonly available all year round. Tang Yuan are also eaten as a snack or dessert throughout the year. In Singapore, we would buy the frozen versions from time to time and serve them as a mid-afternoon snack, although my mother would usually make them by hand for Winter Solstice. This year the Winter Solstice falls on December 21st, so I’ve been experimenting with various recipes to make a grain-free Paleo/AIP-friendly version and I’m happy to say that I’ve succeeded! The round Tang Yuan symbolise family togetherness and hence being able to make them while on the Autoimmune Protocol and enjoy them together with my own family means a lot to me.
Chinese Tang Yuan are made with glutinous rice flour (also known as sweet rice flour) and either rolled into small balls to be eaten in a sweet soup base, or stuffed with sweet fillings such as ground peanuts, red bean paste, or black sesame paste and likewise served in sweet soup. The sweet soup base can vary from household to household as well; some people prefer using dark sugar together with an infusion of fresh ginger slices, whereas others prefer using granulated sugar and the addition of knotted pandan leaves for a pandan scented clear sweet soup. There are also a whole myriad of combinations, from pumpkin flavour to chocolate flavoured ones, served in sweet soups such as red bean soup or soy milk. There are also glutinous rice ball sweet treats in other Asian cultures, but I’m most familiar with the Chinese versions so I’ll be featuring a grain-free depiction of the classic Tang Yuan I grew up eating.
When I was a child, my mother would usually buy the dough made by the tofu seller from the market. I remembered she would buy a packet of white dough and pink dough, and we would sit around the dining table to roll the Tang Yuan together. I enjoyed mixing the 2 doughs to make marbled Tang Yuan, and we would put the Tang Yuan on large platters before cooking them in a large pot of water and serve them in a pandan-infused sweet soup. My mother likes to keep it simple and hence we never made them with fillings. Winter Solstice changes from year to year, but somehow we would always make them 3 days before Christmas. Western kids grew up making Christmas cookies in December with their parents, I grew up rolling Tang Yuan with mine!
I was intending on making a pandan-scented version like the ones I grew up eating, but had difficulty obtaining pandan leaves the past few weeks (hence the last minute posting) and finally decided to share my version of the ginger-brown sugar version sans pandan so that others may enjoy it as much as my family has.
The use of Grade B maple syrup and blackstrap molasses give a lovely flavour to the sweet soup with more depth and nutritional value compared to ordinary brown sugar. Either orange sweet potato (commonly called yam in the States) or white sweet potato may be used. White sweet potato results in pale grey-ish Tang Yuan, less ‘snow white’ than the original glutinous flour versions but the texture is pretty much spot on for either type of sweet potato used. I personally prefer making it with orange sweet potatoes, as seen in the photo below. In this version, I added tapioca pearls and chunks of papaya for added textural contrast.
The ingredients aren’t too exotic and should be relatively easy to find. I went along with arrowroot starch as it is more widely tolerated than tapioca starch. Traditionally, there aren’t ‘fixed’ recipes with strict measurements as working the dough is based mainly on feel since the dough is kneaded by hand until pliable, with the flour or water amounts adjusted accordingly. The quantities I have provided in my recipe are approximations, so feel free to adjust according to your preference. Chinese treats and desserts are not particularly sweet in nature, so adjust the maple syrup amount according to your personal preference (and tolerance).
- FOR THE TANG YUAN
- ½ cup mashed sweet potato (orange or white flesh)
- 1 tbsp maple syrup
- ½ cup arrowroot starch
- 2 - 4 tbsps hot water
- FOR THE SWEET SOUP
- 3 cups filtered water
- 1 tsp blackstrap molasses
- 2 - 4 tbsp maple syrup
- 1 inch sliced and peeled ginger
- FOR THE TANG YUAN
- In a medium bowl, stir together all the ingredients, adding the hot water tablespoon by tablespoon until the dough comes together
- Knead by hand until a pliable dough forms
- Adjust the consistency by adding a little water or arrowroot starch if necessary
- The dough is of the right consistency if it has the softness of your earlobe (that's the best comparison, serious!)
- Form small ½ inch or 1 cm balls by pinching off bits of dough and rolling between your palms
- Fill half a large saucepan with water and bring to boil
- Drop the balls into the boiling water and boil for 5 minutes, or until the balls float
- Scoop out the floating balls from the water and place into a bowl of cool water to prevent them from sticking as you prepare the sweet soup
- FOR THE SWEET SOUP
- In a medium saucepan, stir together all the ingredients and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium and allow to simmer for 3 - 4 minutes
- Add the Tang Yuan and remove from heat once the sweet soup begins simmering
- Adjust sweetness to taste
- Serve hot
Microwave oven method:
Poke a small sweet potato all over with a fork and cook in a microwave oven for about 6 - 8 minutes. Allow to cool slightly before cutting into half and scooping out the flesh. Mash or blend until smooth.
Peel and cut a small sweet potato into large chunks. Boil the chunks in a saucepan filled with just enough water to cover the sweet potatoes for approximately 15 - 20 minutes, or until the chunks are easily pierced with a fork. When boiling the sweet potato, make sure to drain the cooked sweet potato thoroughly before mashing/ blending until smooth.