Chap Goh Mei, the fifteenth day of the first lunar month is a day of celebration for Chinese people worldwide. This day is also commonly known as Yuan Xiao Jie, the name given to the glutinous rice balls (tang yuan) dessert that is served today.
Yuan Xiao was originally a Chinese snack, a counterpart of the Tang Yuan we know today. Yuan Xiao is also glutinous rice balls but filled with minced meat and vegetables dipped in a savoury broth. The sweet Tang Yuan that we have today is a version filled with black sesame, peanut and red bean paste.
Origins of the Glutinous Rice Balls
Why it started
Back in the Han Dynasty, Dongfang Shuo, the favourite advisor of the palace, found out that Yuanxiao, a maid-in-service, was trying to take her life. This was due to her inability to go back home and show her filial piety to her elders. Shuo had to work out a way to reunite Yuanxiao with her family.
The advisor began to spread a prediction that fire will rain from the heavens on the fifteenth day of the lunar new year. Shuo, picking up where the rumours started, told the people to beg for mercy when the God of Fire sends a fairy in red on a black horse to burn down the city on the thirteenth day of the first lunar month.
Sure enough, Yuanxiao disguised herself as the fairy. And as people flocked to beg for mercy, an unfazed “fairy” informed that she had a copy of a decree from the God of Fire that should be taken to the emperor. A worried emperor received the decree and sought advice from Shuo. To which he said that the God of Fire loves to eat Tang Yuan. He said that Yuanxiao was a talented cook in making glutinous rice balls.
How the customs came to be
The latter took charge of preparations and every household was supposed to make the sticky rice ball snack to worship the God of Fire. Yuanxiao was to go into the city to do quality checks. The people also hung red lanterns and lit up firecrackers to trick the God of Fire that the city was ablaze.
With all the orders in place, Yuanxiao took the opportunity to go home and reunite with her family for the joyous occasion. Harm did not befall the city and the emperor was so pleased that he made the glutinous rice balls, lanterns and firecrackers customary every new year. Since Yuanxiao made the best sticky rice balls, the day was named in her honour – Yuan Xiao Jie.
The significance of Tang Yuan
Chap Goh Mei is especially significant when family members and relatives gather to celebrate the festive occasion. Tang Yuan signifies tuan yuan (unity) based on its round, ball-like shape. This dish signifies how families should unite as one with strengthened bonds.
How to make Plain Tang Yuan
As this is a very popular Chinese New Year dessert, this dessert is an easy recipe to make. With or without filling, coloured or non-coloured rice balls, different soup bases are all based on preference. What is most important is that the dish is savoured with your loved ones!
- Glutinous Rice Ball Dough
2 cups of glutinous rice flour
¼ cup of hot water
¾ cup of cold water
- Soup Base
Few pieces of sliced ginger
Sugar to taste
- In a large bowl, pour in sifted glutinous rice flour. Add in the hot water to the centre of the bowl and wait for 10 minutes. Then, pour in the cold water. Mix well and knead into a smooth ball of dough. Shape the dough into small equal-sized pieces.
- Shape the rice balls as round as possible.
- Add in water, sliced ginger, pandan leaf and sugar and boil to form a soup.
- Bring a pot of water to boil, cook the glutinous rice ball. Once they float atop, the glutinous rice balls are ready to serve.
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