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TangYuan: Chinese Glutinous Rice Balls

TangYuan are Chinese glutinous rice balls filled with a sweet black sesame filling that may just blow your mind. We’ve entered into the second lunar cycle of the year, marking the beginning of Chinese New Year festive season! This is a beautiful time to come together with friends and family and enjoy delicious foods, including my very favourite Chinese soft and sweet treat: TangYuan. Never heard of them? You’re in the right place.

TangYuan (汤圆 tāngyuán), called YuanXiao (元宵 yuánxiāo) in the north of China, is the main food to eat during YuanXiaoJie (元宵节 yuánxiāojié). Also known as, the Chinese Lantern Festival. The origins of the Chinese Lantern Festival date back over 2000 years in history. This year, the Lantern Festival falls on the 15th of February, 2022. So you have plenty of time to learn about TangYuan and start making some yourself!

In this post, we are going to dive into the following:

  • Origins of TangYuan: Chinese Lantern Festival
  • Making Chinese Glutinous Rice Balls – TangYuan
  • Recipe
  • Additional notes
Chinese glutinous rice balls resting- delicious Tangyuan, ready to be cooked and devoured.

Origins of TangYuan: Chinese Lantern Festival

The Chinese Lantern Festival, or 元宵節 (yuán xiāo jié), is celebrated on the 15th day of the first lunar month. This is a day where families come together and eat TangYuan. This festive occasion is in honour of the first full moon in the Lunar New Year. Hence, the traditional food for this holiday is the TangYuan, white and round like the moon herself. Traditionally, during the Lantern Festival, people participate in a variety of activities, such as playing Chinese games, guessing riddles from lanterns or setting off firecrackers. In the streets people walk around admiring lights from hanging lanterns and watching performances like the Lion or Dragon dance.

It is a must-eat food during the Chinese Lantern Festival. TangYuan holds many prosperous and symbolic meanings derived from its shape, sweetness and name.

  • The round shape of TangYuan symbolizes wholeness and completeness.  
  • The sweetness, signifying a sweet and happy life.
  • TangYuan sounds similar to TuanYuan (团圆), meaning: reunion. Symbolizing family reunion, happiness and harmony.
Cooked and served Chinese glutinous rice balls – Tangyuan – after a filling meal.

Making Chinese Glutinous Rice Balls – TangYuan

The recipe consists of two main parts. Firstly, preparing the dough and the black sesame filling. Secondly, assembling the dumplings. Then finally, deciding whether to cook immediately or freeze for future consumption.

When preparing the sesame filling, my best advice is to blend the ingredients gradually. Consider the time and don’t grind the ingredients for too long as oils may begin to release from the seeds. Start just with your seeds and make sure to grind them as fine as you can before adding sugar, salt and butter. When it starts to clump and crumble together, you’ll know it’s ready.

For the dough, it does not require much handling. Simply mix rice flour with warm water first with chopsticks then with your hands. Warm water will make the dough much easier to work with as you begin assembling the balls. Make sure to divide the dough and filling into even and equal number of portions. The dough should always be covered with a damp cloth to keep it moist. Follow the instructions in the recipe below to assemble and devour these epic TangYuan!

Recipe: (Makes 24 Sweet Sesame Filled Chinese Glutinous Rice Balls)


For glutinous rice dough:

  • 2 cups glutinous rice flour
  • 1 cup warm water

For sweet black sesame filling:

  • 1/2 cup black sesame seeds
  • 1/3 cup powdered sugar
  • 2 tbsp softened butter (not melted)
  • 1/4 tsp salt


  1. Toast black sesame seeds in a shallow pan. Mix and swirl the seeds on low heat for several minutes. Do not toast too long or the sesame will develop a bitter taste. Remove from heat and allow to cool for a moment.
  2. In a food processor, grind toasted black sesame seeds to a fine powder.
  3. Add powdered sugar and salt to black sesame powder and process further.
  4. Add softened (room temperature) butter into the food processor and blend for 15 seconds at a time until just combined. You may need to scrape down the sides of the processor with a spoon as you go.
  5. Scoop everything out of the food processor and roll the filling into one log. Divide the filling into 24 equal sized pieces, rolling them into balls (this will make the rice balls easier to close) and keep them in a bowl.
  6. Make the dough: Put the glutinous rice flour in a separate large bowl. Using chopsticks, slowly add in warm water, stirring until it starts to clump together. Then use your hands to combine the dough.
  7. Roll the dough into a log and divide into 24 even-sized portions and roll them into balls. Make sure to keep the dough balls under a damp towel to prevent them from drying out.
  8. To assemble TangYuan: Take one ball of dough, flatten it into a flat disc between your fingers. Put a ball of sesame filling in the centre. Fold two sides of the dough up around the filling, then close the remaining dough up around the filling. Make sure there are no visible gaps of sesame. To have a smooth seal all around, dip your fingers in warm water and roll the ball between your hands. You should have a smooth, almost shiny rice ball.
  9. To cook TangYuan: Bring a big pot of water to boil. Add the glutinous rice balls and immediately stir gently with a wooden spoon to prevent the balls from sticking to the base of the pot. Allow to boil for about 5 minutes or until the balls are floating.
  10. Serve TangYuan in small bowls with some of the cooking water. Enjoy the sweet soft sesame goodness!
  11. To freeze: Freeze the assembled TangYuan raw, keep them distant from each other on a tray upon placing them in the freezer for the first 30 minutes or so to prevent them from sticking together. Once they’ve hardened you’ll be able to place them in a bag or container.

Cook’s Note

Glutinous rice flour is gluten free. Therefore, you will find it is more difficult to work with than wheat flour, particularly in the assembling process. The dough may rip or crack. I found the following techniques helpful when assembling:

  1. Once you have your flattened the dough to a disc, rest the bottom of the disc on some rice flour before resting it back on your hand and proceeding to fill and close the ball. This will prevent it from sticking to your hands and ripping before you close the ball.
  2. To help you smooth out the dough, use a few drops of warm water. By keeping a glass of warm water in front of you, you can dip your fingers in when needed to help make the dough more obedient. Especially once you’ve sealed your filled ball, to make it completely smooth, a couple of drops of water will assist you as you roll the ball between your hands.
Soft white and sweet – Chinese glutinous rice balls – TangYuan.

Additional Notes

While traditionally TangYuan are sweet and filled with sesame or peanuts, nowadays there are many new flavours of sweet fillings. Including: brown sugar milk tea, red bean, chocolate, matcha, creamy custard… etc.
Savoury TangYuan also exist! Savoury TangYuan is generally stuffed with ground meat and cooked in a vegetable broth. After eating a bowl of Savory Tangyuan with some crispy chili oil drizzled over the top, your belly and your heart will be full!
Furthermore, you may even come across fried TangYuan. Fried TangYuan will normally be smaller than the traditional boiled bunch. Deep fried TangYuan tends to be served at weddings dipped in a peanut powder.

There are many variations of these traditional Chinese glutinous rice balls! Sweet, savoury, deep fried, even colourful ones like these marbled TangYuan! The world of TangYuan is an expanding beautiful world developing new flavours and combinations.

My wish by now, is that you feel confident and comfortable to attempt making your own TangYuan! Guaranteed you won’t be disappointed by this unique traditional Chinese sweet treat. Finally, may all your dreams and wishes come to light under the next full moon with some TangYuan in your belly.