Marking the end of Chinese New 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!
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.
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.
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.