[SG] Winter Solstice | 冬至 - Tangyuans (Glutinous Rice Balls)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

There should be no problems in trying to pick up a packet or two of 'tangyuans' from your nearby supermarket with peanut, red bean or sesame fillings. Being a rather commercialized traditional item on the frozen products shelf, typically only the filled tangyuans are being marketed. I would consider it a blessing when my 81 year old grandma decided to hand-make unfilled 'tangyuans' for us during this year's Dongzhi. She cringed at the mention of those frozen counterparts and loudly exclaimed 'bo ho chiak lah!' (doesn't taste good in Hokkien). Learning the skills of hand-making tangyuans since she was 9 from my great-grandmother, I am the 4th generation to inherit this recipe!

The Winter Solstice Festival or commonly known as Dongzhi Festival (冬至) is one of the most celebrated traditional festivals by Chinese and East Asians alike. It usually falls on 22 December of each year, when daylight is shortest and night longest for the year. This however is not a phenomenon noticeably observed but rather a moment in time. The winter solstice is interpreted differently worldwide according to each's culture, but the general disposition is one of celebratory nature involving reunions.

A hearty bowl of fresh hand-made unfilled tangyuans filled my stomach and warmed my heart as this was the first time I sat down together with my grandma to enjoy this simple yet meaningful treat. Made out of glutinous rice flour, these tangyuans were meaningfully molded to round balls to symbolize reunion (团圆). Some of the tangyuans were purposefully dyed with red/pink coloring, for it is a color that is usually associated with joyous festivals, occasions and celebrations according to the Chinese.

It certainly took some time and effort (seeing how grandma kept using her sleeve to wipe the perspiration off her forehead and she insisted that I should just wait by the side to eat...well I was thought to be more of a hindrance than help..) but this bowl of tangyuans was certainly one of the best I had ever had. Family means everything to me and no amount of money can ever replace that. Being the first time in more than 20 years that I got to try my grandma's tangyuan certainly added some bonus points.

In all honesty and bias aside, my verdict is as follows:
(+) The sugar syrup soup was a divine concoction, tasting of ginger and gula melaka.
(+) An initial rich and sweet taste from the gula melaka was very tantalizing.
(+) Balanced by a mildly provocative aftertaste induced by ginger.
(+) Despite usage of gula melaka as primary sweetener, it was only subtly sweet.
(+) Very soft, chewy and 'QQ' texture of the glutinous rice balls (Grandma's secret recipe)

Verdict: 9.5/10

Despite grandma's reluctance to let me into the kitchen to help her out with the making of the tangyuans, I was beside with my camera quietly snapping away, though she was definitely camera-shy and kept saying 'mai hip wah hor!' (don't photograph me!)

The saccharine soup was prepared separately in a claypot with the main ingredients, pandan leaves, ginger slices, gula melaka and a secret ingredient which she insisted never to reveal to others..

Now, the most tedious part, which left grandma perspiring all over...

The glutinous rice flour was pretty sticky with luke warm water being added into the dough.

Not wasting any bit of the glutinous rice flour, scooping the leftover onto the dough.

 Tired right hand took a rest while the left hand continued the routine kneading...

Finally, its done!

The look of intent.

The saccharine soup prepared at the side, slowly simmered in claypot, finally ready.

With much persuasion, I was finally being let into the kitchen to help roll the tangyuans into the round balls to be cooked in boiling water.

Cooking of the tangyuans in a claypot.

Pipping hot freshly cooked tangyuans!

With the tangyuans distributed into our bowls, the saccharine soup was then poured in, with the end result being the first picture above. 

Reunions in my humble opinion should not be celebrated only during Dongzhi, Christmas or the New Year, it should be an affair that one strives to achieve always, whenever possible. 

With the origins of this festival traced back to the ying and yang philosophy of balance and harmony in the cosmos, it was thought that after this celebration, there would be longer daylight days, resulting in an increase in positive energy. With that, I wish everyone a good year ahead and all the best in your endeavours!

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