Grandma's tasty tangyuen

Tangyuen stuffed with crushed peanuts served in
fragrant ginger broth
In my childhood, holidays and Christmas are what I look forward to as the year draws to a close.  But sometime in the week before Christmas our family would go to Ah Kong or grandfather’s house at No. 154 Jalan Ngee Heng for dinner.  I remember it was almost like a Chinese New Year reunion dinner where we meet our cousins and eat a big meal together but the difference is the fun we had making and playing with glutinous rice balls.

That was because grandma had the tradition of celebrating one of the most significant Chinese festivals, Dong Zhi or Winter Solstice Festival.  I later learnt that unlike most Chinese festivals that are based on the Chinese lunar calendar, Dong Zhi is based on the Gregorian or Western solar calendar.  The festival, which usually falls on or around 22 December, occurs when the earth’s axis is tilted furthest away from the sun, resulting with the shortest daylight hours and the longest night of the year.

On that day, the kitchen in Ah Kong’s house was a hive of activity from early afternoon for the preparation of glutinous rice balls or tangyuan for afternoon tea and a sumptuous spread for the family dinner later.  Grandma had a huge kitchen and dining hall with a large round dining table as the centerpiece.  I remember watching grandma, deemed the chief cook, amazed at how she could work so well with her daughters and daughters-in-law who helped with the various food preparations.

The formica-topped table would be cleaned for grandma to knead glutinous rice flour into the right consistency.  The dough would be split and one part mixed with red food colouring to create pink coloured dough.  Then the fun begins when extra pairs of hands were invited to help pinch portions of the dough to roll into round shapes and line them neatly on trays, taking care to keep them apart or they would stick together in a clump.

Rolling the glutinous rice flour and stuffing
in crushed peanuts to make stuffed tangyuen
I was a volunteer in helping to roll the dough into little balls and learnt that it was a skill to consistently create round shapes in the required standard size.  My little palms did not get it right the first few times so it was heart-breaking to have my ugly creations squashed and re-moulded into shapes that better resembled spheres.  I also learnt that speed in producing more was not a priority but the skill in consistently creating round balls of equal size.

The best part of this activity was at the end when there were sufficient tangyuan made and the balance of the dough was left for the children to play.  We would apply our own creativity to mould the dough and have much fun designing various shapes and creatures, and sometimes when grandma was not looking, we would also get them cooked!  If the dough started out white in colour, by the time we were done playing, it would have turned into a strange dirty shade!

At that time, I had no idea why tangyuan were eaten but I learnt that the celebration was a form of Chinese Thanksgiving where there was ancestor worship and family dinners.  It is significant for Chinese to eat the tangyuan together as a family as the round shape of the balls and the bowls in which they were served, symbolize family togetherness.  In China, this annual tradition of eating tangyuan welcomes the winter and also counts as a year has passed.

I remember being told that I’m a year older as I munched the chewy tangyuan balls.  I was puzzled as it made no sense to me then but now I know.  I recall my aunties used to be anxious to reduce the number of tangyuan in their bowls because they erroneously claimed that eating each tangyuan added another year and they were in no hurry to age!

Thinking of grandma’s tangyuan, I can almost smell the fragrance of that rich ginger broth flavoured with syrup that she used to brew.  When we were ready to eat, the raw tangyuan would be dropped into the boiling broth and cooked instantly.  Grandma would usually serve an equal number of tangyuan in white and pink colours in each bowl.

Now tangyuen can be bought readymade
in frozen packs and conveniently served at home
In those days, everything was made at home from fresh ingredients but now tangyuan are factory mass-produced and packed for sale as frozen food.  While it’s now common to have tangyuan that are stuffed with various sweet or savoury ingredients or tinged in a range of colours, grandma’s traditional recipe was for plain glutinous rice balls in two colours – white and pink.  Many restaurants and hawkers serve tangyuan as dessert and it’s available from the freezer all year round so now we don’t have to wait for the Winter Solstice or any festival to enjoy this delicacy.

This year, the Winter Solstice Festival falls on 22 December and Chinese families who have this tradition would be gathering for a celebration.  With grandma now aged 99 and the house at Jalan Ngee Heng demolished, all that remain of grandma’s Dongzhi are only memories.  So whenever I taste tangyuan, I have the fondest thoughts of our family fun and bonding at this annual festive meal in grandma’s kitchen, so long ago. 

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 21 December 2011

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