Today is Dong Zhi (Winter Solstice) which in Mandarin means "the extreme of winter". I wish everyone great happiness and optimism.
In Singapore where most Chinese descended from Southern Chinese, we celebrate Dong Zhi eating tang yuan which are glutinous rice balls in a sweet syrup. Chinese fesitval dishes usually have auspicious and meaningful names and the tang yuan is no different. Tang yuan sounds like "tuan yuan" which in Mandarin means reunion of the family. My Northern Chinese friends tell me that unlike the Southerners, they do not eat tang yuan but they eat jiao zi (Chinese savory dumplings). I think it will be really nice if I get to eat both tang yuan and jiao zi, kind of a North meets South Dong Zhi. Maybe next year.
Dong Zhi usually falls on the 22nd of December. This year however, it is on the 21st which has caught my family unaware. As a result, there was a mad scramble yesterday to buy all the ingredients needed to prepare the vegetarian meal we traditionally eat on the day itself.
Top on the to buy list is the glutinous rice dough needed to make the tang yuan. It is a simple dough made from glutinous rice flour and water that has to be kneaded for a long time to achieve the chewy texture. Most markets sell the dough in white and pink on the eve of Dong Zhi but it gets sold out quickly because almost every family needs them. For those who do not have the time to knead and roll out the little glutinous rice balls, there are ready made frozen tang yuan.
To be perfectly honest, the frozen tang yuan taste much better than the home made ones and they come in many different fillings like black sesame, red bean and peanut. The home made ones are plain and taste rather bland. However, it is more fun for the whole family to get involve and roll the glutinous rice dough into little marble size balls. I have many fond memories of me and my brother playing with the dough, being creative making tang yuan of various shapes and sizes. The strange thing was that no matter what shape tang yuan we made, they turned into lumps once cooked.
Here are the tang yuan all rolled out. They are then dropped into a pot of boiling water and once the tang yuan float, they are cooked. I never get tired of the sticky chewy glutinous rice balls served in a thick, sweet syrup made from brown sugar. Some people prefer a clearer looking syrup using castor sugar but according to my Mom, brown sugar is traditionally used.