The first month of the Chinese calendar is called yuan month, and in ancient times people called night xiao, therefore, the day is called Yuanxiao Festival in China. As the fifteenth day, it is also the last day of Chinese New Year.
Same as most people in China, today I rushed home after work and had Tang Yuan with family for dinner. Traditionally, Tang Yuan is served specially today, the pronunciation is similar to the word Tuan Yuan, which has the meaning of reunion and happiness. It comes many regional variations and many flavors ranging from bean paste filled to pork meat filled. My all time favorite are the ones with black sesame filings.
You need to eat Tang Yuan when it is warm – or better when it is HOT. The right way to eat it is picking up one soft and juicy tang yuan using a spoon. Take a tiny bit on the doughy skin. You can watch the sesame fillings rush out as the steam escapes from the inside at the same time. Use the tip your tongue carefully test out the fillings to make sure it won’t burn you alive. Once you are ready, go ahead and take a BIG bite or swallow the whole thing. Let the creamy juicy sesame fillings explode in your mouth as you chow down the chewy dough. Don’t stop here, reach out for the next one before I take it from you….
And yes, I had 10 of these for dinner today and felt really full…
Historically, a number of different names were used to refer to tangyuan. During the Yongle era of the Ming Dynasty, the name was officially settled as yuanxiao (derived from the Yuanxiao Festival), which is used in northern China. This name literally means “first evening”, being the first full moon after Chinese New Year.
In southern China, however, they are called tangyuan or tangtuan. Legend has it that during Yuan Shikai’s rule from 1912 to 1916, he disliked the name yuanxiao (元宵) because it sounded identical to “remove Yuan” (袁消), and so he gave orders to changed the name to tangyuan. This new moniker literally means “round balls in soup”.
When I was young, it was really fun make the Tang Yuan – to make the balls, take enough dough and roll into a ball, press it down with your palm, put a ball of sesame paste into the centre, gather the sides and pinch away access dough. Roll it to a ball. It is like making a toy and eat it later, so I always have to promise my mother that I won’t be naughty and play with the food.
The best place in Shanghai to taste Tang Yuan or buy the take aways is in Wang Jia Sha at West Nanjing Road, they are famous for it but keep in mind that the line is really long.