Yesterday was Winter Solstice 2008. The Chinese calls it Dong Zhi (Mandarin) or Guo Dong (Cantonese) and it is an auspicious day. Many cultures around the world observes some sort of celebration on the day of winter solstice, and for the Chinese, we gather the family around to make Tong Yuen. These days, you can also buy pre-made frozen Tong Yuens from Asian grocery store, but homemade ones are always better, in my opinion.
I am not with my family to celebrate this important day (again), which also signifies that the Lunar New Year is around the corner (Jan 26 in 2009). Luckily, I was able to find glutinous rice flour to make these chewy balls filled with palm sugar at the Vietnamese store near my house. Andy claimed that he had never made Tong Yuen before so I sat him down with me and rolled up little red, white and green balls in our pajamas on an extraordinarily blustery Sunday morning.
Tong Yuens are also made for other Chinese auspicious events, such as Guo Dai Lai (Delivery of Bethrotal Gifts) before a Chinese wedding. My grandmother told me that the white balls represent sons, and reds represent girls. Because Christmas is just a few days away, I also made green ones which are coloured and flavoured with pandan (screwpine) emulsion. I also offered a bowl of these auspicious dessert on my altar.
There are many variations of Tong Yuen, but I always favoured the plain and palm sugar filled ones. A quick search online revealed other recipes that calls for stuffing the balls with savoury ingredients (pork), peanuts, and black sesame paste.
- 2 cups of glutinous rice flour
- 3/4 cup of hot water (sprinkle more if needed)
- Food colouring (I use Super Red from Americolor brand that I usually use to colour my fondant and buttercream icing)
- Palm sugar, chopped to little pieces
- Pandan leaves, tied in a knot (if available)
- Mature ginger root
- Rock sugar or cane sugar
- A bowl of cold water
- A small bowl of room temperature water to wet your fingers during the process of rolling the balls
- Damp cloth or paper towel to cover unused dough
- In a deep bowl, make a dam with the glutinous rice flour. Pour hot water into the well made with flour and combine together with chopsticks. Use your hands to knead the dough to combine the water and flour well. You may need to wet your fingers occasionally if the dough appears to be dry and flaky. Knead the dough until pliable. Let the dough rest for a few minutes.
- Section the dough into the number of colours that you wish to use. Cover the unused dough with a damp cloth or paper towel to avoid from drying, which happens very fast, especially in the winter here. Colour the dough by using toothpicks (if you are using gel colour), and knead the dough until the colour is well combined. You might prefer to have marbled effect for your tong yuens, so you could combine the colours according to your preference too.
- Pinch a piece of the dough, roll it into a ball and flatten it to form a size of a quarter. You might need to wet your fingers again if your dough dries up. Add a pinch of palm sugar or fillings of your choice in the center of the dough and wrap it up to form a ball. Make sure that the seams are closed so that your filling doesn’t leak out when the ball is cooked. Place the balls on a platter until all the dough is used up.
- Boil water, sliced mature ginger root, knotted pandan leaves (if available) and cane/rock sugar in a pot. This will be the syrup used to serve the tong yuens in. You may choose to make this ahead of time and heat it up just before serving.
- In a separate pot, fill 3/4 of the pot with water and bring to boil. Turn the heat down to medium high, and drop a handful of the completed tong yuens in to cook. When the balls float to the top, let them cook for another minute or so, or else the sugar will be grainy and unmelted.
- Use a slotted spoon to scoop the balls up and place them in a bowl of cold water to stop the cooking process. Drain well.
- Serve the tong yuens in a bowl with cane sugar and ginger syrup. These are best when eaten fresh.