Tong Yuen, or glutinous rice balls are a staple during our family’s winter solstice celebrations (dong zhi). My grandmother will always remark that after we have eaten tong yuen during dong zhi, we are a year older (and wiser, hopefully). We also eat it on the 15th day of the Lunar New Year as these dumplings symbolises family togetherness. For me, I eat them all year round because it is one of my favourite desserts.
Where I’m from, on the night before the wedding, the bride’s family will make a large pot of tong yuen to share with the guests. 2 glutinous rice balls would be cooked first – one white and one tinted with red food colouring. If the white one floats to the surface first, the happy couple is expected to have a male child.
During my wedding, the pink one floated up first and surprise, surprise… I am blessed with a girl! Coincidence? I’m not much of a believer of such things but I find no harm in having a bit of fun now and then.
Anyway, these little balls, eaten with sweet ginger soup, can be stuffed with cane sugar, red bean paste, crushed peanut or any other filling you can think of. I’ve even tried nutella + peanut butter. Scrumptious! Forget about all those frozen, overpriced nonsense they sell in the supermarket. It takes no time at all to make it yourself and I usually make huge batches of these little guys and freeze them for later.
The most important thing to take note of is to make sure you use the right type of flour! Tong Yuen can only be made with glutinous rice flour because it is ground from short-grain glutinous rice, aka “sticky rice.” The extremely starchy quality of this type of rice is what makes the balls hold their shape. You cannot substitute rice flour for glutinous rice flour.
I find that using boiling water to scald the flour first makes for very chewy rice balls, plus the dough becomes more pliable too, which helps during the wrapping of fillings. My family has been making tong yuen this way for as long as I remember. Now a similar technique, which is called tangzhong, is popular in bread-making!
As for the filling, I usually put in a dollop of peanut butter, or red bean paste if I have some lying around. But when I want to go all out, I’ll grind up some peanuts and mix in some sugar and peanut butter for that luxe restaurant quality tong yuen.
Leftover uncooked balls in the pan can be place directly into the freezer. Once frozen, transfer to a ziplock bag, dusted with glutinous rice flour. Whenever you crave tong yuen, just pop the frozen balls straight into boiling water and cook. No fuss, no mess.
Don’t be alarmed when the balls sink to the bottom of the pot. There is no need to stir it and they won’t burn. Messing with them can cause the balls to burst. Once the glutinous rice balls are cooked, they will naturally float up all by themselves. Then you can remove them to a bowl of cold water until you’re ready to serve it.
I love lots and lots of ginger in my soup, but it may be too spicy for some, especially children. So the ingredients for the soup is just a guideline. You can at liberty add more or less of anything according to your taste. You can also omit the brown sugar / gula melaka and use dried red dates instead. There are really no rules when it comes to this sweet soup.
Glutinous Rice Balls in Sweet Ginger Soup
Ingredients for Glutinous Rice Balls
- 200g glutinous rice flour
- 1 tbsp wheat starch (tang mein fun)
- 1 tsp sugar
- 100ml boiling water
- 100ml room temperature water
- food colouring of your choice
- Orange (carrot juice)
- Red (cranberry juice)
- Chocolate (cocoa powder)
- Green (pandan leaf juice)
Ingredients for the filling
- Cane Sugar, cubed
- Red bean paste
- Ground Peanuts mixed with sugar and peanut butter
- Peanut Butter
- Anything and everything… be creative
Ingredients for Sweet Ginger Soup
- 6 cups water
- 1/2 cup brown sugar (you can also use gula melaka)
- Rock sugar (adjust according to taste)
- Ginger, bruised
- 2-3 pandan leaves
Glutinous Rice Balls
- Place 2/3 of the glutinous rice flour and sugar in a bowl, then add boiling water slowly, stirring as you go. It’s going to become a very hot, sticky mess.
- Slowly pour in half the room temperature water then use your hands and gently knead to incorporate. Add more water or flour as you go until the dough doesn’t stick to your hands anymore.
- Gather a bit of the dough and roll it into a small ball between the palm of your hands, then use your thumb to flatten it into a circle. Make the outer parts of the circle thinner than the center, so that when you wrap the filling it won’t burst out from the bottom.
- Place your rice balls in a pan dusted with glutinous rice flour so that they won’t stick together. If you’d like to freeze them, you can do so now.
- To cook them, get ready a pot of water on a rolling boil. Pop in the rice balls. They will sink to the bottom of the pot.
- Its ready when they float up to the surface of the water.
- Place them in a large bowl of cold water if you’re not eating them right away.
Sweet Ginger Soup
- Place all the ingredients in a pot on medium high heat.
- Once it starts to boil, turn the heat down and gently simmer for 1/2 an hour. This gets the ginger and pandan leaves to release their flavours.
- Place glutinous rice balls in a bowl, ladle in the ginger soup and savour hot.