A traditional Chinese dessert of glutinous rice balls (tang yuan) filled with sweet black sesame paste in a fragrant sweet osmanthus and ginger soup.
Black sesame tang yuan is a very much loved Chinese dessert that I could never have too much of, or too often.
There’s something to be said of the sensation you’ll experience when you sink your teeth into a smooth, chewy glutinous rice bal. You get that wonderful lava-like burst of sweet, nutty flavour hit your taste buds all at once!
The sweet and the bland in perfect union. It’s a blissful taste of heaven.
What is 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 moulded into balls. Then these balls of plain dough are cooked in water and served in the same, or in a sweet soup. Once cooked, they take on a soft and sticky, chewy texture.
Often times, you’ll also find coloured glutinous balls in bright cheery tones of pink, yellow or green. These make for a really lovely presentation.
Though usually served plain, my family enjoys the sweeter version of tang yuan. These are the ones that contain a sweet filling like red bean paste, ground peanut paste or black sesame paste.
Like the black sesame tang yuan I’m sharing here, I also love those filled with a sweetened peanut paste. The peanut filling is made with crushed peanuts and sweetened (or salted), usually with sugar and often mixed with a bit of peanut butter to bind it altogether and make it smooth.
When do you eat tang yuan
Tang yuan are traditionally eaten during the Yuanxiao or the Lantern Festival. These are also 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 as easily available at stalls serving traditional Chinese desserts. My favourite haunt is a small stall in Chinatown, where the old Aunty still makes these delicious tang yuan and cooks them by hand in her huge vats over her fire stoves.
Honestly, I wouldn’t know where I’d go once Aunty hangs up her ladle for good and retires. So, as determined as I am to enjoy tang yuan whenever I have a craving for them, I have now started making these at home. And I am really thrilled that they are of standard – I think Aunty would approve!
Black sesame tang yuan
Black sesame tang yuan are my favourite. And I do make the extra effort of preparing my own sweet black sesame paste from scratch. It’s really easy to do, but I would advise preparing the paste in advance instead of trying to accomplish everything in one go.
Whenever I prepare home-made black sesame paste, I tend to make a sizeable batch. I’d end up with more than 2 cups of paste, so there’s always more than extra to make sweet-tasting Chinese tang yuan.
When prepared fresh, the unmixed ground black sesame can be stored in the chiller for up to a month, or in the freezer for up to 3 months. I use the extras to make black sesame desserts such as my Japanese black sesame chiffon cake or this hearty and nutritious black sesame soup.
Enclosing the black sesame paste takes a bit of work, but is always worth the effort (and mess too!). The black sesame paste is enclosed within the dough and cooked together.
I also like to add osmanthus flowers, often used to make tea. It adds honey sweet notes 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 really pretty!
Ingredients to make black sesame tang yuan
- black sesame seeds, toasted and ground into a paste
- pandan leaves (optional)
- rock sugar
- osmanthus (optional)
- glutinous rice flour mixed with water to make a dough
Useful tips for making black sesame tang yuan
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 made this mistake far too often than I care to admit.
That’s because I have a propensity to heap a sinful amount of filling onto the rolled out ball of dough. And 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. So here are the most important tips to keep in mind when you’re working with tang yuan.
Chill the black sesame balls in the refrigerator before filling
This allows the paste to harden so that it can better hold it’s 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.
Oiled or greased fingers will make handling the dough very difficult, and also dirty the dough skin. As much as possible, you should make sure the dough is free of any black sesame specks, especially if you intend to serve this as dessert to guests.
Have extra water and glutinous rice flour ready in separate bowls
When you’re ready to shape each dough ball into a round disc, have some water and glutinous rice flour in separate bowls ready.
And you need to be especially mindful of the amount of filling. Don’t be tempted to make the fillings too big, as the dough may be stretched too thin to hold it in and may rupture during the boiling process.
If this happens, the fillings will spill out into the water and ‘dirty’ it with black sesame specks. And it gets worse if you have other balls cooking in the water. Those specks will stick onto the other balls. Not a pretty sight! You will have to throw out the water and boil a fresh pot.
Cook the tang yuan as you make them
Cook the filled tang yuan as you make them. The 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. If they’re left to sit too long, trying to lift them off the plate later may ruin them as the sticky skin can easily break.
Don’t get hung up on imperfection
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. You do not need to mix these in with the ginger soup, and they can be eaten separately.
Cook tang yuan in a separate pot of boiling water
Always cook the filled tang yuan in a separate pot of boiling water, rather than in the ginger soup you’ve prepared. This is to prevent the rice balls from clouding the soup. Once you’ve cooked the tang yuan, transfer the cooked balls into a second pot of hot water. This helps prevent them from sticking to each other until the time you are ready to serve these in a large soup dish, or in individual serving bowls filled with ginger soup.
Give tang yuan some room to cook – do not overcrowd the pot when boiling
When you drop the tang yuan 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.
You’ll want to finish with as many cooked, filled balls as you started out with. I leave cooking the imperfect tang yuan to the end, after all the ‘good’ ones are done. I set these aside to be eaten separately. They might not look pretty, but I promise you, they will taste just as good!
I’ve adapted the process of preparing this, as it can be challenging to handle the dough. 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.
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Black Sesame Filled Glutinous Rice Balls with Sweet Osmanthus
(Adapted from source: Perfectscook.com)
To Make Ground Black Sesame Filling:
- 200 g black sesame seeds
- ⅓ cup black sesame paste (obtained from ingredient above)
- 50 g butter
- 5 tbsp caster sugar
- Pinch salt
To Make Ginger Soup:
- 5 cups water
- 100 g ginger peeled, bashed lightly
- 4 pandan leaves tied into knots (optional)
- 75 g rock sugar or more, to taste
- ½ tsp osmanthus plus extra for garnishing
To Make Dough:
- 225 g glutinous rice flour plus extra, as required
- 180 ml water plus extra, as required
To Make Black Sesame Filling:
- 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).
To Make Ginger Soup:
- 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.
To Make Glutinous Rice Balls (please read recipe notes):
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.