I was in Taiwan at the end of the Lunar New Year celebrations, which ended with Yuanshiao Jie, the week-long Lantern Festival. This year, Yuanshiao, the first full moon of the new lunar year, was February 28, my last full day in Taiwan.
The traditional food eaten for Yuanshiao Jie is tang yuan, balls of glutinous rice in broth. This was my first time eating tang yuan with filling—as a child, my paternal grandmother and I just made the plain small ones (yes, I realize that they are small round things, but playing with dough was fun.) Most commonly, tang yuan are filled with sweet black sesame, sweet peanuts, or the ubiquitous red bean paste, but there are also savory versions with meat.
Making filled tang yuan seems rather labor-intensive. Balls of filling are alternately rolled in rice powder, moistened, and rolled in powder again, repeatedly building up layers of chewy dough around the filling.
Before the holiday, several shops were making them outside and selling takeaway trays of ready-made tang yuan of assorted flavors, but we had ours on Saturday night at a place near National Taiwan University well-known for its ices (strawberries and cream, sweet red beans, or other syrupy fruit over a mound of shaved ice) and other sweets. The tang yuan were boiled to order and served in either a plain sweet broth or with jiu niang, very sweet fermented rice broth redolent of wine and flowers. (I’ve always ascribed a fairy-like quality to jiu niang—it is so sweet, but not a cloying, one-note sweetness, more like drinking an essence of mixed flowers, and the wine gives a heady, otherworldly taste to the clear syrup.)
After finishing our tang yuan, my relatives and I went to the Lantern Festival near Taipei City Hall.
Happy Year of the Tiger!