There are many legends about the origins of the festival. One of the most famous dates back to over 2000 years ago, during the rule of Emperor Ming of the Han Dynasty. Emperor Ming, a dedicated Buddhist, noticed that on the 15th day of the first month of the lunar calendar, Buddhist monks always lit up lanterns in the temples. He ordered everyone to do the same, and from there on, it developed into a tradition.
During the Lantern Festival in China, celebrations abound: lanterns hang in front of every building, from one-story homes to skyscrapers; children carry lanterns in different colors and shapes, guessing riddles and playing games; street artists perform dragon and lion dances, as well as folk dances; and the crackling sounds of firecrackers and laughter fill every street corner.
And of course, food is at the center of the celebration.
A Sticky Tradition
The quintessential food of the Lantern Festival is glutinous rice balls, made with a variety of fillings. They are traditionally eaten because they are round and sticky, and therefore symbolize reunion and inseparability.
They have two names in Chinese: Northern Chinese call them yuan xiao and Southern Chinese call them tang yuan. Many people think the two are the same thing. Actually, although they are similar, there’s a fundamental difference in the way that they’re made.
To make yuan xiao, a solid filling is repeatedly rolled in a tray with glutinous rice powder and dipped in water, alternating the two steps, until it becomes the size of a ping pong ball. Its surface is thus uneven and fluffier than that of tang yuan. On the other hand, tang yuan is made by kneading glutinous rice powder and water into a dough, and then wrapping it around the filling. Its surface is smooth and denser.
Glutinous rice balls can be made with various types of fillings, from sweet to savory. The most popular fillings are black sesame (my all-time favorite), white sesame, red bean, peanut, and even pork.
Making Yuan Xiao
To celebrate the Lantern Festival, I gathered every member of my family to make sweet black sesame yuan xiao. My older daughter, who just turned 2, was thrilled—her face lit up immediately.
I demonstrated how to roll the filling into a ball, and she eagerly stuck out her tiny hands and asked for some, too. I scooped her half of a teaspoon of filling, and she immediately rubbed it all over her hands.
My husband, on the other hand, was so talented even though he almost never cooks. He comfortably grabbed the filling and formed the rice balls like a professional pastry chef.
“Have you ever done this before?” I asked. “Nope,” he answered. “The secret lies in the strength of your palms.” He even spoke like a professional chef.
Our yuan xiao turned out to be delicious. The outside had a perfect “Q texture”—stretchy, springy, and chewy, yet soft and tender all at once—and as we bit into it, the filling slowly ran out. The aroma of sesame was intense, but not overpowering. Every bite was unforgettable.
I hope you enjoy making yuan xiao with your family just as much as we did.
Sweet Black Sesame Yuan Xiao (Sticky Rice Balls)
Prep Time: 1 hour
Cook Time: 10 minutes
Makes about 24 rice balls, for 4 to 6 people
- 1/4 cup peanuts
- 3/4 cup black sesame seeds
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 3/4 stick unsalted butter, melted
- 1 pound of glutinous rice flour
To make the filling: In a pan, toast the peanuts over low heat until lightly colored, about 5 minutes. Take them out and set aside.
In the same pan, toast the black sesame seeds over low heat until aromatic, about 3 minutes. Take them out and set aside.
Add the peanuts to a food processor or blender and grind until coarsely ground. Then add the sesame seeds and sugar, and grind until they become powder.
Add the melted butter and mix until combined. For the filling to be runny, you must add enough butter. Traditionally, lard is used, but since it is hard to find, I replace it with butter.
Pour the mixture onto a tray. Transfer it to the fridge to cool until firm, about 30 minutes.
To make the rice balls: Take half of a teaspoon of the filling and use your hands to form a ball, about 1/2 inch in diameter. Do the same with the rest of the mixture.
In a flat tray, add the glutinous rice flour. Place a few sesame balls in the flour, then shake the tray so that the balls roll around and pick up a layer of the flour.
Dip each ball in a bowl of water for 2 seconds, then put it back in the flour and shake the tray again. Repeat the above steps 10 times. If any of the balls crack, brush a bit of water on it and watch it work its magic.
To cook: Boil a pot of filtered water. Add 8 rice balls at a time and cook on high heat, stirring with the back of a ladle. Cover the lid so that the fillings can fully cook.
When it comes back to a boil, reduce the heat to medium. After about 3 minutes, uncover the lid and check if the rice balls have floated to the top. When they do, add a cup of water; this will prevent the skin from breaking apart.
Let it come back to a boil, then uncover the lid and cook until they expand in size, about 2 minutes.
Serve 4 to 6 rice balls, along with some of the cooking liquid, in each bowl.
CiCi Li is the producer and presenter of “CiCi’s Food Paradise” on NTD Television. Join her in discovering the world of Asian home cooking at CiCiLi.tv.