Tangyuan and Yuanxiao

Also known as “Tangtuan” and “Fuyuanzi”, Tangyuan is one of traditional Chinese snacks in South China. In the north of China, it has a “natural brother” called Yuanxiao. They look quite similar, and are both the festive food during the Lantern Festival. Traditionally the glutinous rice balls are regarded as the symbol of family togetherness and harmony, eating the special dessert means family happiness and reunion in the new year, so it is a must-have food for the Lantern Festival on the 15th day of the first lunar month.

Lantern festival food - tangyuan

According to legend, Tangyuan originated in the Song Dynasty (960-1279). A kind of new snack emerged in Mingzhou (current Ningbo City, Zhejiang Province). The sticky rice balls were stuffed with black sesame seeds, sugar and lard. After being boiled in water, it tasted sweet and tender.

The Winter Solstice is an important festival before the Chinese Lunar New Year. In Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), the historic record mentioned: "Celebration of Winter solstice is as big as that of the Lunar New Year", which shows that the ancient people attached great importance to the festival. Eating Tangyuan during the winter solstice is especially popular in Jiangnan (the region of south of lower reaches of Yangtze River). There was a saying among the folks that "eating Tangyuan to grow one year older". During the festive days, Chinese people used Tangyuan as one of the sacrifices to show their respect to their ancestors, and it can also be used to give the relatives and friends as an ideal gift.

Regarding the relations between Tangyuan and Yuanxiao, there was a legend in South China. During the regime of Yuan Shikai (1912–1916), he hated the name Yuanxiao because it sounded identical to “remove Yuan” in Chinese, and thus he gave orders to change the name to Tangyuan (soup balls). Nowadays, Tangyuan usually refers to the southern style, while Yuanxiao refers to the northern style.

Difference between Tangyuan and Yuanxiao

Tough Yuanxiao looks almost the same as Tangyuan, actually there are some differences between the two snacks in the following fields:

1. Making methods 

To make Tangyuan, raw glutinous rice flour are first mixed with hot or cold water to form a wet dough, and then various fillings are wrapped in small pieces of dough and rounded by hand. As to Yuanxiao, the solid candied stuffing is made in advance. People will cut them into small pieces, dip them in water, and then put into a sieve filled with raw glutinous rice flour. Keep shaking the sieve until the pieces of wet stuffing are fully covered by rice flour and turn into rice balls, and sprinkle some water during the process. Therefore, Tangyuan is more compact, while Yuanxiao has a loose surface.

2. The Stuffing

Tangyuan from South China has various types of fillings, including the traditional five kernels (walnut, melon seed, almond seed, Chinese white olive and sesame), peanuts, red bean paste and many other flavors like fruits and flowers, even meat and vegetable fillings. In contrast, Yuanxiao always tastes sweet. The main ingredients include candied black sesame, hawthorn and bean paste.

3. Cooking time

For Tangyuan, the cooking time is relatively short, about 3 to 5 minutes. When all the balls float on the surface of boiling water, they are ready. Usually the soup is quite clear. If you cook Yuanxiao, the cooking time is longer, often more than 10 minutes, and the cooked soup becomes thick and murky as part of the sticky rice flour is spilt from the surface of the balls. >> Consider take a China food tasting and cooking tour, check it out. 

tangyuan - food for lantern festival

4. Storage

Tangyuan can be frozen, so the shelf life is relatively long. But Yuanxiao is easy to crack in the refrigerator. This is why we can see Tangyuan sold in the shops all over the country. If you like, you can eat them all year round. It is not that easy to preserve Yuanxiao, so it is only popular in North China.

Nowadays, people seldom make their own Tangyuan or Yuanxiao since it is very convenient to buy the frozen packaged Tangyuan in bags from the supermarkets, which are mass-produced in the food factories. There are more varieties of them: different tastes, ingredients and even colors!

There are many types of featured Tangyuan and Yuanxiao throughout China. Here are some of the most prestigious ones:

Ling Tangyuan of Chongqing

In the 1930s, Mr. Lin Minghe, the founder of Lin Tangyuan, carried his vendor stand selling Tangyuan on the street of Chongqing. As his Tangyuan tasted so well that it soon became a popular snack of the town. Later, Mr. Lin worked with others to expand his business in Chongqing and opened branch restaurants in other cities like Chengdu, Kunming, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Nanning. Later he became a business tycoon. After the outbreak of the Anti-Japanese War in 1937, Mr. Lin vigorously funded the then government to fight against Japanese army. And his brand of Lin Tangyuan was renamed to Ling Tangyuan. Up to now, it has become one of the favorite snacks of the people in Chongqing.

Five-colored Tangyuan in Suzhou

Wumen Rice Noodle Restaurant in Suzhou serves its unique Tangyuan in five colors, which are stuffed with 5 kinds of fillings respectively, including pork, rose with lard, bean paste, sesame, and osmanthus flower with lard. The snack is both sweet and salty with the five colors: pink, green, golden, creamy and deep brown, which come from the natural ingredients like pumpkin, carrot, tea, wheat, etc.

4-flavor Tangyuan in Guangdong Province

The locals firstly boil or steam mung beans, red beans, candied white gourds, and taro roots respectively. Then peel them, add sugar, sesame, cooked lard and other seasonings to make four kinds of sweet fillings, and stuff them into the glutinous rice balls with different marks on the surface. Cook all the four types of Tangyuan in a pot of boiling water. When it is ready, every bowl will have 4 balls with different fillings. This style of Tangyuan originated in the late Qing Dynasty.

tangyuan for lantern festival

Sisters’ Tangyuan in Changsha

Sisters’ Tangyuan is a well-known snack in Changsha with a history of 70 years. It was named after the two sisters of Jiang’s family who ran the business years ago. They use hawthorn paste, white sugar, dried osmanthus flowers as filling. The rice balls look snowy white and translucent with a smaller size and exquisite sweet taste.

Chicken Tangyuan in Xingyi of Guizhou Province

Founded in the late Qing Dynasty and passed down by four generations, it has a history of more than one hundred years and has become one of the four famous snacks in Xingyi area of ​​Guizhou today. Unlike most of the other Tangyuan, the Xingyi Chicken Tangyuan is unique with a salty taste. The sticky rice balls are filled with minced chicken, pork, chicken soup, and sesame paste.

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