A traditional Chinese dessert of glutinous rice balls (tang yuan) filled with sweet black sesame paste in a fragrant sweet osmanthus and ginger soup.
This is a very much loved Chinese dessert that I could never have too much of, or too often. If I could trot everyday to my favourite Chinese desserts stall selling tang yuan, I would!
There’s something to be said of the sensation you’ll experience when you sink your teeth into a smooth, chewy glutinous rice ball, and feel that wonderful lava-like burst of sweet, nutty flavour assault your taste buds all at once! The sweet and the bland in perfect union. It’s my blissful taste of heaven.
Whenever I prepare home-made black sesame paste, I tend to make a sizeable batch (I’d end up with more than 2 cups), so there’s always more than extra to make sweet-tasting Chinese tang yuan. Tang yuan is a Chinese food made from glutinous rice flour which is mixed with some water to make a soft, pliable dough. This dough is then moulded into balls, and is cooked in water and served in the same or, as more popularly enjoyed, in a sweet soup. These glutinous balls can be made big or small, and eaten plain or filled with a variety of fillings such as red bean paste, ground peanuts, or sweetened black sesame paste. Often times, you will also find coloured glutinous balls in bright cheery tones of pink, yellow or green, which make for a really lovely presentation.
Tang yuan are traditionally eaten during the Yuanxiao or the Lantern Festival, or as special desserts at Chinese weddings and auspicious family occasions. These days, tang yuan is enjoyed as a dessert for any time or day. However, I have found that these are not always available at stalls serving traditional Chinese desserts. So, determined to enjoy tang yuan whenever I want some, I now make these at home. And black sesame filled glutinous rice balls are my absolute, absolute, favourite. In this home-made version, I like to add osmanthus which adds honey sweet undertones to your soup. I have come to love these adorable tiny flowers so much that I just can’t seem to have enough. Sprinkle them over your soup when serving – they look so, so pretty!
If you’ve never made filled glutinous rice balls before, just one piece of advice! Don’t let greed get the better of you! I’ve fallen victim on several occasions (will I never learn??) to my propensity to heap a sinful amount of filling onto the rolled out ball of dough, only to have these burst through the skin, either while I’m sealing up the edges, shaping it, or cooking it in simmering water. Once that happens, there’s no way to salvage the dough or filling. What’s even worse, if this happens in the water, you’ll end up with dirty looking water and a black speckled mess everywhere! You’ll have to change the water and bring a fresh pot to boil. So trust me on this one, less is more, in this instance.
You’ll want to finish with as many cooked, filled balls as you started out with. Or you can do what I do – when I’m done with cooking all the perfectly moulded balls and have scooped these out of the boiling water and into the sweet soup, I then cook the imperfect ones in the water. When done, I set these aside to be eaten separately. They might not look pretty, but I promise you, they will undoubtedly taste just as good!
I’ve adapted the process of preparing this, as it can be challenging to handle the dough, so I’ve included some tips in the accompanying recipe notes below, which I hope are helpful when you prepare this yourself. Please do take the time to read through the recipe notes, as I’ve learnt a lot from my own mistakes, and I would like to save you a lot of time and heartache! I found the original recipe at Perfectscook.com also very helpful if you are interested to browse.
- 200 g black sesame seeds
- 1/3 cup black sesame paste (obtained from ingredient above)
- 50 g butter
- 5 tbsp caster sugar
- Pinch salt
- 5 cups water
- 100 g ginger peeled, bashed lightly
- 4 pandan leaves tied into knots (optional)
- 75 g rock sugar or more, to taste
- 1/2 tsp osmanthus plus extra for garnishing
- 225 g glutinous rice flour plus extra, as required
- 180 ml water plus extra, as required
Toast sesame seeds in a wok or skillet over low heat, until fragrant and smoky, about 9 minutes. (Tip: Throw some white sesame seeds into the mix, so that when these turn a toasty brown, you'll know the entire batch is toasted through). Remove and let cool for 10 minutes.
In a blender, grind or pulverise the toasted seeds till it resembles a rough paste. The paste will become clumpy as the oils are released.
Take 1/3 cup of this paste and blend with butter, sugar and salt till a smoother, thick paste is obtained. Take 1/2 teaspoon portions, shape into small balls and place on a tray or plate. Cover with cling wrap and let chill in the refrigerator until required. Meanwhile, prepare the ginger soup. (Note: If you would like bigger balls, the fillings can be made a little larger).
Fill a pot with the water and put in ginger and pandan leaves. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Once boiling, discard pandan leaves. Let boil for 10 to 15 minutes, or until water has reduced to about 4 cups (1 litre). Add rock sugar and osmanthus and boil until sugar has dissolved. Turn off heat and set aside.
In a mixing bowl, mix glutinous rice flour with enough water and mix till the sticky dough comes together, and no longer sticks to your fingers. Shape into a long sausage shape until about 1 inch (2 cm) wide. Cut into 1 inch (2 cm) lengths - should make 15 to 20 sections. Cover with a clean tea cloth to prevent the dough from drying out. (Tip: If you would like bigger balls, divide equally into larger sections). Have some water and extra glutinous rice flour in separate bowls ready on your work top.
Meanwhile, bring a pot of water to a gentle boil over medium heat. Have a second pot of warm water ready.
Take the chilled black sesame balls out of the refrigerator. Take one ball of dough (remember to cover the rest with the tea cloth) and flatten into a round disc. Keep the centre slightly thicker, and press around the edges. Dab your fingers with a little water if the dough gets too dry and begins to crack. Dab very sparingly with flour if it gets too sticky.
Place a black sesame ball in the centre, fold up the edges all around the filling towards the centre and seal by pressing together with your fingertips. Then shape into a smooth ball by rolling it very gently between your palms. Drop it gently into the boiling water, making sure to allow some room between the balls. Do not attempt to move or stir them around until they float. As you drop each filled ball into the water, scoop out cooked balls that float to the surface and place into the second pot of warm water. Repeat for the rest of the dough sections.
When ready to serve, scoop 4 to 5 filled balls in individual serving bowls and fill with ginger soup. Sprinkle over with some osmanthus and serve hot.
#1. The step I take to chill the black sesame balls in the refrigerator is to allow the paste to harden a little so that it can better hold its shape. When placing it on the rolled out disc of dough, use a pair of chopsticks to place it neatly in the centre. This will prevent your fingers getting oiled, greasy and speckled with bits of black sesame, which will not only make handling the dough very difficult, but also dirty the dough skin. The dough should be free of any black sesame specks as much as possible, especially if you intend to serve this dessert to your guests.
#2. When shaping each dough section into a round disc, have some water and glutinous rice flour in separate bowls ready. Do not be tempted to go overboard with your filling, as the dough may be stretched too thin to hold it in. A such, the skin of the dough may rupture during the boiling process, and it will 'dirty' the water with black sesame specks. Or worse, if you have other balls cooking in the water, these specks will stick and 'dirty' their skin. Not a pretty sight! You will have to throw out the water and boil a fresh pot.
#3. I've chosen to immediately cook each filled ball as I make it, as these balls tend to stick to the plate or tray when left to sit for a while (and it may be quite a while if you have to work through 15 to 20 balls!). Removing them later may ruin them as the sticky skin can easily break. Don't get hung up on a ball that couldn't be shaped or sealed well - set it aside and move on to the next one. These imperfect ones can be cooked at the end, after all the rest are done, and eaten separately. Do not mix these in with the ginger soup.
#4. Cooking the filled balls in a separate pot of boiling water, rather than in the prepared ginger soup, is to prevent the rice balls from clouding the soup. Transferring the cooked balls into a second pot of hot water helps prevent the balls from sticking to each other until the time you are ready to serve these in a large soup dish or individual serving bowls filled with ginger soup.
#5. When you drop each filled ball into the boiling water to cook it, leave some room between the balls to prevent these coming into contact and sticking together. Also, do not attempt to stir or move the balls around in the water once you drop these in, until the balls eventually float to the surface. At this point, the dough skin of the ball is cooked through and it can be scooped out.