Glutinous Rice Balls 汤圆 ‘Tang Yuan’ with Black Sesame Paste

Tang yuan 20170210

No matter where you go, there you are. ~ Confucius

Last week I shared our Turnip Cake ‘Loh Bok Gau’ recipe, a traditional dish eaten on the first day of the Lunar New Year. It seems fitting now to share our Glutinous Rice Ball ‘Tang Yuan’ recipe. ‘Tang yuan’ is mostly commonly eaten during the winter solstice, significant family celebrations and also on the fifteenth and last day of the Lunar New Year – that is, today. The sticky round balls symbolize unity and completeness. In days of old, all members of the family would gather to make these balls and eat them together. The modern family unit is much smaller but the tradition is still practised all over the world.

The rain has been relentless and I was not keen on driving to the store to pick up some pre-made frozen ‘tang yuan’. If only I were more organized last week… oh well. Fortunately, I had all the required ingredients to make some from scratch. It’s also fun to do and extra hands make short work of it. So we set to ‘labor’ in the kitchen while the rain continued to pound outside.

As a kid, I would be asked to help make ‘tang yuan’. I was too short to comfortably work at the kitchen bench for long and would end up sore shoulders the following day. Also, not being very adept in the kitchen, I would have flour smeared on my face and dough stuck in my hair. Evidently I was not a natural at cooking! Not surprisingly, I only started to find my way around the stove only a few years ago.

Back home, my mother always only made the balls in 2 colours – large white ones and smaller pink ones. This is still what reminds me of my youth and home. But really the colouring is only limited by your imagination and the balls can be made in any size. I have even seen balls made with black sesame seeds added to form cute faces and animals. My mother also only made traditional plain ‘tang yuan’. Over the years, sweet and salty stuffings have gained popularity. Ground peanuts, red bean paste, lotus bean paste, osmanthus flowers. Black sesame paste is most common. etc. More modern creations include chocolate, matcha and preserves. Today, ‘tang yuan’ is a regular dessert easily available in most Asian dessert cafes.


  • Though the dough is very forgiving, it should not be too wet. Add a little water at a time and stop once it holds its shape and there are no more sticky bits in the bowl.
  • The black sesame paste is most often made with lard for a silky smooth texture. I replaced it with clarified butter as I prefer the subtler taste.
  • You can get creative with the stuffings. I had some red bean paste leftover from a recent fevered craze for Traditional Baked Mooncakes even though we are about half a year away from the Mooncake Festival, so that went into our ‘tang yuan’ 🙂
  • Typically ‘tang yuan’ is served in what is called 糖水 (‘tang shui’) which literally translates into ‘sugared water’, a water and sugar base used in several Chinese desserts. The amount of sugar is adjusted according to your preference. I chose to make a ginger syrup to incorporate the healing and other ayurvedic properties of ginger.

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Hungry for more?

Try out Traditional Baked Mooncakes that I craved for recently.
For another Asian dessert with ayurvedic and traditional chinese medicinal properties, check out Chinese Green Bean Dessert Soup.
Don’t forget to explore other recipes that takes advantage of the complex flavour of gula melaka (palm sugar) instead of plain sugar.

Tang yuan 20170210


Author: felix
Recipe type: Dessert
Cuisine: Chinese
Serves: 12 large and 12 small ‘tang yuan’ balls
Prep time: 25 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes

Ingredients for basic ‘Tang Yuan’: 

2 cups glutinous rice flour
1 cup water for making dough
2 drops red food colouring (optional)

Ingredients for black sesame paste (optional):

1 cup black sesame powder
1/2 cup gula melaka (palm sugar), grated or 1/2 cup brown sugar
1 Tbsp clarified butter or lard, melted

Ingredients for ginger syrup:

3 cups water
1 thumb ginger, thickly sliced or bruised
4 Tbsp rock sugar to taste
2 pandan (screw pine) leaves, knotted

Instructions for basic ‘tang yuan’: 
  1. Make the dough and balls: Add water a little at a time to the flour to make a pliable dough that is not too wet. The tension should feel like the bottom of your ear lobe. Roll into balls of about 1″ in diameter. (Optional: Separate a portion of the dough, add the food colouring, knead and roll into balls.) Cover with a wet towel while not being used to prevent it from drying out.
  2. Prepare a large, preferably wide bowl or pot and fill with iced water or water at room temperature. Boil at least 3″ of water in a pot. Add each ball into the boiling water. Once a ball floats, scoop it out and transfer to the iced water to stop it from cooking and prevent sticking.
  3. Prepare the ginger syrup: Boil 4 cups of water in a pot. Add ginger, pandan leaves and rock sugar (adjust according to taste). Boil for about 5 minutes. Remove the ginger and pandan leaves.
  4. Serve ‘tang yuan’ balls in a bowl of ginger syrup.
Instructions for black sesame-stuffed ‘tang yuan’: 
  1. Mix black sesame powder with clarified butter and gula melaka. Microwave for 30 seconds if the butter is not soft enough.
  2. Make the tang yuan dough in Step 1 of the Basic Tang Yuan recipe (above).
  3. Flatten a ball of dough into a circular shape. Spoon 1-2 teaspoons of stuffing and carefully wrap the dough around it.
  4. Continue with step 2 of the Basic Tang Yuan recipe.

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