Yuan Xiao Festival marks the end of Chinese New Year celebrations. It’s on the 15th of the first month of the lunar calendar. It is called Lantern Festival by Wiki. But I prefer Yuan Xiao, because lanterns are not the main feature of this festival. Flying paper lanterns was never something we did in northern China. It must be from some other places.
Yuan Xiao (元宵) is a lot more important though. They’re sticky rice balls with different (usually sweet) fillings inside. I always remember the endless arguments we had in my Uni dormitory (how I miss those happy days!). People in the Northern China eat Yuan Xiao on Yuan Xiao Festival, but people in the South eat something called Tang Yuan (汤圆). Tang Yuan is sticky rice balls with different fillings inside as well. So what’s the difference? Four of us could never agree. This remained an unsolved mystery. Another mystery was the “proper” rules for playing Majiang (Mahjong).
I’ll take this chance to explain the difference now that my dear roommates from Uni are all over the world and can’t argue with me anymore. I’m not going to put any pictures of them up, because they do look very similar and it will just confuse you even more. But google if you’re interested.
To be brief, the main difference is the way they are made. Yuan Xiao (northern type) is done by “shaking”. Tang Yuan (southern type) is done by “stuffing and rubbing”. They can have many different types of fillings, my favourite is chocolate… the traditional ones are sesame, mixed nuts, red bean paste, hawthorn etc.
So for Yuan Xiao, you get the filling in cubes, scatter them in a huge container, like a bamboo weaved flat basket, with sticky rice flour in it already. You shake the basket. Shake shake shake. The fillings make contact with the flour and get bigger and bigger like snow balls.
For Tang Yuan, you get the filling ready, doesn’t have to be in cubes. Get the sticky rice dough in bitesize balls. Stuff one filling into one sticky rice ball. Seal the hole and smoothen it by rubbing between your palms.
You can cook them in various ways and their textures in the mouth are subtly different too.
Here is an illustration:
Happy Yuan Xiao Festival (especially to my Uni roommates)! I miss you all!
*The illustration is done by a listener of a specific radio programme call Fei Yu Xiu, which I’ve been listening to for 10 years. This illustrator is called Dong Gan Cao Ren. Very talented! Thank you very much for the lovely drawings!