Time to get rollin’
With the arrival of the winter season comes an excuse to eat more tong yuhn (湯圓), a dessert that loosely translates as ‘soup spheres’. These sticky glutinous rice balls, typically filled with black sesame, peanut or red bean pastes, are served in a clear sweet ginger soup perfumed with osmanthus flowers. While they now come in a great variety of flavours and combinations (including chocolate, matcha, durian, etc), that trio of traditional fillings remain a stalwart of Hong Kong’s tong sui po menus; after a day spent amid the throngs of city life, there are few things more comforting than sitting in one of those late-night dessert diners and breathing in the floral, spicy steam of ginger- infused soup.
Enjoyed across mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, variations on the dessert can also be found in Southeast Asian countries to which different Chinese ethnic groups have migrated and set down roots: Vietnam’s chè trôi nuóc (meaning ‘floating tea’) is commonly filled with mung bean paste, while in the Philippines ginataang bilo-bilo is served in coconut milk, as is Thailand’s bua loi.
Despite being enjoyed year-round (as evidenced by the entirety of one of my freezer drawers), the making and eating of tong yuhn is most often associated with the Lantern Festival, which marks the end of Lunar New Year celebrations. In 2022 it will fall on 15 February, when the first full moon of the lunar year forms.
Tong yuhn make an appearance in the Han dynasty legend of Yuan Xiao, a young maid who lived in the courts of Emperor Wu, and whose name is often used to refer to the rice balls in northern China. Yuan Xiao was skilled at making these little balls, but she was never allowed to leave the palace to see her family. Homesick and alone, Yuan Xiao stood at the edge of a well and contemplated suicide. Before she could throw herself into it, a trusted adviser to the emperor, Dongfang Shuo, who had heard her weeping, took pity on her and offered to resolve her predicament. Pretending to be a fortune teller, he began to tell the people of the city that the God of Fire would sweep through their houses and destroy the palace, burning the city to the ground. News reached Emperor Wu, who asked his adviser what to do. Dongfang Shuo told him that to appease the god, the emperor should hold a magnificent city-wide celebration with lanterns and firecrackers (so the city would appear aflame) and lots of tong yuhn (the fire god’s favourite food) on the 15th night of the first lunar month. That evening, the city’s residents gathered together and poured through the palace gates to watch the festivities. And Yuan Xiao was reunited with her family in the crowds. The tale is one of the reasons tong yuhn have come to represent the reunion of family and friends.
The other reason is much simpler: these glutinous rice balls are shaped to resemble the full moon, a symbol of wholeness. The coming together of families is a particularly important tradition of Dung Zi (‘winter’s extreme’, known in the West as the winter solstice), during which nighttime is at its longest and tong yuhn are eaten at the end of a large family meal to celebrate the approach of the lighter days of spring. The festival, which has its roots in rural traditions, usually occurs around 22 December, and though it doesn’t enjoy the widespread attention and festivities of Lunar New Year (Macau is the only region that celebrates the winter solstice as a public holiday), it is considered by many to be the true marker of the new year, since it signals the passing of the darkest of days. Good news for those of you who can’t wait until the Lantern Festival to slurp down tong yuhn. I never do. Time to get rollin’.