How I had mistaken a Winter Solstice family recipe for tangyuan

11496262656_7f543f100c_nAll these years, I had it wrong.

Whenever my husband mentioned the sesame balls they ate for Winter Solstice, I imagined a version of tangyuan, those delicious glutinous rice balls stuffed with sweet sesame or red bean paste traditionally served in parts of Southern China. Except John called them sesame balls or máqiú (麻球), not tangyuan. Maybe máqiú was just another name for tangyuan in the local dialect?

But then Saturday night I watched my mother-in-law prepare máqiú in her kitchen and had a double take. She dropped balls of glutinous rice dough straight into the boiling water without even filling them. Had she lost her mind? Where was the muss and fuss of filling the dough with sesame paste that I had to slog through all these years in the US?

When she fished them out of the boiling water and then rolled them in the black sesame seeds and sugar until every inch of the dough was covered in that sweet, black coating, that’s when I realized it. It was my mistake, not hers.

Sesame balls just fresh from the wok, coated in sesame seeds and sugar.

“Here, eat them while they’re hot,” my mother-in-law said as she pressed a steaming bowl of them into my hands.

“But that’s it?” I said, my face almost flushed with embarrassment. Could she tell that I had mistaken tangyuan for máqiú all along?

“Eh, it’s simpler! You don’t need to worry about all that trouble of filling them.”

Oh, I knew all about the trouble of filling them. All those years in the US, I had slaved hours upon hours to make so-called máqiú — never realizing the actual recipe was so easy and fast.

Sometimes, family traditions get lost in translation when you’ve never experienced them. I only learned about máqiú through long-distance phone conversations with John’s family over the years and through John himself (who definitely missed a few important details in his descriptions!).

Happy holidays from me and the family!

But aren’t you bound to misunderstand when you learn something secondhand? Today during our huge Solstice dinner, I tried explaining some of the foods we used to eat for Christmas — cranberry sauce, turkey and mashed sweet potatoes. How do you explain “cranberry sauce” to them when they’ve never even seen the actual berries at the heart of this sweet-and-tart holiday delight? How you can you describe the aroma of a turkey fresh from the oven when they’ve never eaten turkey and don’t have an oven? Even though sweet potatoes are native to this region, chances are they’ve never tried anything like my creamy, buttery sweet potato and parsnip mash. I wonder what went through their minds when I described Christmas dinners of the past?

Well, you live and learn — especially when you’re living with family. And actually, I’m kind of relieved about what I just learned. Never again will I have to mess around with filling rice dough in the name of tradition. Woo-hoo!

Happy holidays!

Winter Solstice Máqiú Recipe

I think of máqiú as “inside-out tangyuan” or even “tangyuan without the filling fuss”. They’re easy, delicious and a wonderful way to celebrate the holidays. They’re best eaten hot or steaming.

This comes straight from my mother-in-law, who approaches the whole process intuitively — hence, the lack of exact amounts.


For the sesame coating:
Black sesame seeds

For the rice balls:
Glutinous rice flour
Cold water
Oil (to protect your hands)

Toast your sesame seeds, then place them in a bowl. Toss them with sugar of your choice until sweet, and adjust according to your taste preference. Put the bowl of sugar/sesame seeds aside. (Note: this step can be done a day or two in advance).

Mix the glutinous rice flour with just enough cold water so the flour begins to stick together, but not more than that. You don’t want your flour to be too watery, so err on the side of less and then add small amounts of water as needed to clump the dough together.

Rub oil of choice on your hands. Pick up a small amount of dough — just enough to put in the palm of your hand — and squeeze it back and forth between your hands until the dough sticks together. Then, with as little pressure as possible (too much pressure will cause the dough to fall apart), roll the dough between your hands until it becomes a nice ball. Shoot for balls around 1 inch in size, give or take. Repeat until you’ve used up all the dough.

Boil water in a large pot or wok over the oven. Add the glutinous rice balls to the boiling water, and boil them until they float to the top.

Once you’re ready to fish them out, bring over the sesame seed/sugar mixture. After you remove the glutinous rice balls from the water, immediately roll them in the sesame seed/sugar mixture until fully coated. (Note: if you’re not sure that you’ve added enough sugar, sample your first one to determine whether it’s too sweet or not sweet enough). Repeat until you’ve coated every ball. Serve immediately.

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15 Replies to “How I had mistaken a Winter Solstice family recipe for tangyuan”

  1. We had tangyuan too yesterday, to celebrate the festival.

    Malaysian Cantonese regard the festival as an important one, less so for the Hokkiens like myself.

    We also have a version of maqiu but we mostly coat the balls with white sesame seeds and the balls are then put in a wok of boiling oil to fry. I particularly like the ones stuffed with finely grounded roasted peanuts and sugar.

    Below is a link to the Malaysian version of maqiu, or what I think is a version of.

  2. Wait, how come I wasn’t invited?

    “Sesame balls just fresh from the wok, coated in sesame seeds and sugar.”
    Awww. I like everything sesame. It looks like what I’ve had in Taiwan but the fact that they were freshly made. Where was I???

  3. what a coincidence – my husband told me about that festival important for Cantonese people and I see you made a post about it! 🙂

    I want to eat those sesame blalls! 🙂

  4. Jocelyn! Happy holidays! Seems like you’re already settling into China quite well and you look very at home here 🙂

    Those sesame balls look AMAZING! (even better than tangyuan, maybe!). It doesn’t seem too hard to make, maybe I’ll give it a try.

    I love the photo as well–it really speaks volumes about just how cold southern China is at the moment, and how we have no central heating to rely on (I’m currently sleeping under 4 comforters)! Nothing says “happy holidays” (or xin nian kuai le) like eating dinner in your 2 sweaters, a down jacket, a coat and mittens!

  5. @ordinary malaysian, thanks for sharing your traditions (as well as that recipe). Those maqiu look delicious as well!

    @Eileen and Lina, next time you’re in the ‘hood, I’ll be sure to save you a few. 🙂

    @Shanghai Ronin, happy holidays to you too! Yes, I am feeling very much at home here and grateful to be back — I guess it shows, huh? They are super-easy, so yes, give them a try and let us know how it goes.

    Oh yes, the cold is legendary isn’t it?

  6. Joss,

    I helped make them earlier this year, and by some act of God I created what I thought the filling should be without a recipe. I do believe that I used ground black sesame, sugar and Crisco, and the let a Chinese buddy make them and boil them. They came out great and weren’t greasy. I think the Crisco made the filling a lot easier to handle. So go down to the Giant Eagle in Hangzhou and get Crisco ;P

    Happy Holidays!

  7. Those look amazing! I’m definitely going to try my hand at making them. We went for a dim sum brunch yesterday and they brought around the fried sesame balls, which make me ill (too oily), so this looks like something I would love.
    Thanks for sharing your mother in laws recipe. 🙂

  8. It seems you had a lovely Christmas in China. It is great that you can share a bit of the Christmas spirit with you Chinese family. I never managed to get my Chinese family to celebrate a bit during that time. For me Christmas in China always past by like any other day.

    Luckily, this year we are in Germany with my mother and the first time my other half managed to be with us to celebrate a traditional German/Russian Christmas.

    Thank you a lot for the recipe. I will def try to make them 🙂

  9. I thought sesame balls has white sesames on the outside and red bean paste on the inside…. But I guess each region/family is different.

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