Marking the end of Chinese New Year

February 12, 2009 at 1:21 am 11 comments

flower market
Taken at the flower market in Hong Kong last year

Western new year is over in a flash (or in some cases, prolonged only by an enduring post-party hangover), but Chinese New Year is celebrated over two weeks. I hadn’t really observed tradition this year (no relatives in London means there’s no bai neen for me – visiting houses to wish relatives good fortune and such) apart from making radish cake and giving my parents the requisite phone call on New Year’s day… ;-)

The last day of the Chinese New Year (the 15th day) is called yuen siu, also known as the lantern festival. In Hong Kong, Victoria Park would have no doubt been alight with massive lit floats and structures (though, I don’t think they did it last year…hmm!) and with children running rampant with (health and safety approved) plastic lanterns depicting the cartoon character du jour, though more traditionally one would carry paper lanterns lit with a single candle; another popular lantern is the ubiquitous bunny-shaped one, which is my personal favourite (though, I remember my childhood days when it was the epitome of cool to have a plastic Sailor Moon lantern.)

Families will also indulge in the making of and eating of tong yuen (湯圓), sweet glutinous dumplings. More of the latter, as modern times means most people would rather buy ready-made varieties from the supermarket chiller… but as someone who had never made tong yuen before, I can vouch for how easy it is to prepare in your own home! My black sesame filling is a tad rudimentary and not molten and silky like I prefer, but it definitely sated the craving for tong yuen on a chilly London night!

Sesame-filled tong yuen

Black sesame tong yuen
Based on a recipe from Flavour and Fortune
For the black sesame filling
1 1/2 cups black sesame seeds
1 1/2 cups icing sugar
1/2 cup solid shortening (I substituted some unsalted butter, which probably contributes to a much richer taste).
For the dumplings
2 cups glutinous rice flour
3/4 cup hot water (approximately)

1. For the filling: place the sesame seeds into a dry pan and toast over a medium low heat until fragrant. Tip into a mini food processor and pulse until powder-like.

2. Mix in the icing sugar and knead in the shortening/butter until you get a well-mixed paste. (In reality I didn’t read the instructions thoroughly and bunged everything into the food processor. It worked okay but kneading by hand will probably make a smoother paste. My food processor isn’t very good either at ‘powderising’ the black sesame seeds, so my mixture was rather coarse.) Refrigerate until firm (again I didn’t do this as I didn’t have time – but this will make filling your tong yuen much easier as you can shape the filling into small balls and work the tong yuen dough around it).

4. For the dumplings: Sift the glutinous rice flour into a bowl and slowly add the water, stirring with long chopsticks until the mixture comes together to form a dough. Knead with your hands until smooth and elastic (you may not need all of the water – and this recipe is so simple, you can just add more rice flour or water as you need to get the right consistency).

5. Break off a small piece about the size of a 50p coin (smaller or bigger depending on how large you like your tong yuen to be – it’s easier to fill a bigger one though!). Roll between your palms to create a ball.

step by step
6. Now make an indentation in the middle of the ball and work, using your fingers, to make the hole deeper – forming a ‘cup’ if you will – large enough for a nice wodge of filling. If you’ve refrigerated your filling you can roll little bits into small balls and fit it inside the hole before drawing the edges together and rolling again into a smooth ball. With my slightly liquidy filling this proved more difficult, so I didn’t put as much into each ball as I would have liked! (And sometimes the filling leaked out… as you can see from some of the tong yuens in the background in the picture below!) I find it easier to pinch the open ends together and then draw the two corners together again before rolling. Roll between your palms until completely smooth.

7. Put a pan of water onto a rolling boil (gee, lots of rolling in this recipe…) and carefully drop the tong yuens in. They’re ready when they float to the surface. Remove with a slotted spoon and place into a serving bowl.

Tong yuen
8. In a separate pan, bring more water to the boil and drop in one piece of rock sugar or peen tong (a brown slab of sugar, readily available in Chinese supermarkets) and a knob of ginger. Bring to the boil and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Taste. It should be lightly sweet and gingery but not syrupy. Ladle over the tong yuen and serve.


Entry filed under: chinese, chinese new year, dessert, desserts, homemade, recipe. Tags: , .

Making Chinese crispy pork belly (siu youk) East side love

11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Lizzie  |  February 12, 2009 at 2:11 am

    Wow – these look delicious. I have the flour at home so I’ll definitely give them a go, I also love them with a red bean filling.

    (I had completely forgotten about Sailor Moon – I loved that programme! Not as much as Ding Dong though)

  • 2. Charmaine  |  February 12, 2009 at 10:06 am

    Lizzie – My second favourite filling has to be the roasted peanuts :D I love red bean soup but not so much in tong yuen for some reason!

    OOOH, Ding Dong… all those childhood memories come flooding back! Haha!

  • 3. Su-Lin  |  February 12, 2009 at 12:32 pm

    My mother always made them plain but really small and pink and white. I never even encoutered filled ones until I was much much older! Yours look great!

  • 4. Charmaine  |  February 12, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    Su-Lin – Thanks! I really like the tiny unfilled ones too… a place in HK called Hui Lau Shan does a fantastic mango dessert I must copy when summer comes around. It’s mango slush/sorbet with freshly chopped mango, coconut ice cream and a handful of small glutinous rice balls. YUM!

  • 5. Helen Yuet Ling Pang  |  February 14, 2009 at 7:16 pm

    My favourite filling is black sesame. I have both rice flour and that packet of finely ground black sesame, but I don’t think I’ll ever get them to look so perfect. So I’ll invite myself over to yours instead!

  • 6. c+j  |  February 16, 2009 at 9:49 am

    Your tong yuen look so cute! I’m ashamed to say our flat opted for pre-made frozen ones this year. But this was actually the first time I have celebrated the lantern festival as I was never aware of it before. At home my mum used to make tong yuen whenever the fancy took her. I love them filled with some plain natural peanut butter mixed with a little bit of sugar, eaten with very gingery sweet broth. Yum!

  • 7. Charmaine  |  February 17, 2009 at 7:36 pm

    Helen – It’s weird because mine don’t look perfect at all but they seem to even out and become nice and glossy after cooking. It’s so easy, I’d recommend you try! :D Perhaps a dinner party is in order one day… ;-)

    c+j – Thanks! I’ve always opted for frozen ones but am on a bit of a cook-it-yourself mood lately. I used to really love the peanut butter ones, too, but over the years my taste has veered more towards black sesame. Drool…

  • 8. Agirlhastoeat  |  February 25, 2009 at 3:38 pm

    I love these black sesame tong yuen. It reminds me of my childhood. I will be sure to try your recipe.

  • 9. nelsonyong  |  December 18, 2009 at 6:39 am

    Nice.. I like how you integrate a recipe and a how-to in this blog…

  • 10. Jo  |  January 20, 2010 at 8:07 am

    amateurish way to cook said dish.
    you should boil the ginger like hellllll for authenticity..

  • 11. yay!  |  February 18, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    stumbled on ur blog and i have to say i enjoying it a lot!!! thanks so much for posting, and i hope u keep up the AMAZING work that ur doing!!! the photography is great as well btw! :)


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A freelance journalist and full-time gourmand, eating her way mostly through London and Hong Kong.

Current location: London


Charmaine currently digs: the smell of coffee; adding ponzu to everything; bill granger; still eating natto with every meal; caressing her Nikon FM2n.



February 2009
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