How to celebrate Valentine’s Day/Chinese Lantern Festival + tangyuan recipes!

Enjoying the lanterns (such as the above) during the Chinese Lantern Festival will feel even more romantic this year, with Valentine's Day on the same day!
Enjoying the lanterns (such as the above) during the Chinese Lantern Festival will feel even more romantic this year, with Valentine’s Day on the same day!

February 14, 2014 is not your usual Valentine’s Day, because it also marks the rare occurrence of the Western holiday of Valentine’s Day and the Chinese holiday of the Lantern Festival (元宵节, yuánxiāojié) on the same day (which happens every 19 years).

Then again, in a sense, weren’t these holidays meant to be together? In China some have dubbed the Lantern Festival the real Chinese Valentine’s Day. In the past, unmarried women were not allowed to freely leave their homes. But during the Lantern Festival, they had the chance to come out with chaperones and enjoy the lanterns in public, a wonderful opportunity to meet potential romantic partners as well.

Still, I see this meeting of the two holidays as a perfect symbol of Chinese-Western cross-cultural relationships — and definitely worth celebrating in a special way! The question remains, how?

Besides the usual chocolates and roses, here in China people have decided to add a little Valentine’s Day flare to one of the Lantern Festival’s favorite treats: tangyuan. Instead of the traditional sesame or red-bean paste fillings, people are opting for rose-flavored tangyuan or chocolate tangyuan (yum!). If you’re in China, head to your local supermarket! If not, scroll down — I’ve translated a couple of recipes from online (warning: I’ve yet to try either, so attempt at your own risk!).

For me, there’s something so irresistibly romantic about light displays in the wintertime (I always loved going out with my family to enjoy the Christmas lights in Cleveland, Ohio). That’s why the perennial lantern displays all around China — and other parts of the world — could be that perfect after-dinner activity with your date or spouse. No lanterns? Consider creating your own simple version (like this) or try a Western take on the holiday by stringing up some Christmas lights (especially if you have strings of red) around the house.

How will you celebrate this unusual concurrence of the Lantern Festival and Valentine’s Day?

Wishing you all a Happy Valentine’s Day and Happy Lantern Festival! 祝你门情人节和元宵节快乐!

Rose-Flavored Tangyuan

Translated from this original recipe (which includes excellent photos as a guide). Like my mother-in-law’s cooking, this is an intuitive recipe. No exact amounts are provided, so use your judgment and palate to guide you!


Glutinous rice flour (sold in Chinese supermarkets)
Dried edible roses
White sugar

1. Wash and then dry out the edible roses, and then remove the stems. Place the petals in a bowl.

2. Add white sugar to the bowl according to taste and preference. Mix the sugar and petals together to create a powder.

3. Add honey according to taste and preference.

4. Mix together the honey and powder to create the rose paste for the tangyuan. Set this aside.

5. Wash the strawberries, then soak them in water with a dash of salt for 15 minutes.

6. Remove the strawberries from the salt water soak and place them in a blender. Whisk the strawberries to create a juice.

7. In a saucepan, heat the strawberry juice until warm.

8. Mix the warm strawberry juice with glutinous rice flour, carefully adding just enough flour until you can knead the dough — but not so much that the dough is too dry and falls apart. Knead the dough into a round shape.

9. To prepare the rose filling, mix a little glutinous rice flour into the rose paste.

10. Take a piece of dough, roll it into a round shape and then flatten it. In the middle of the flattened shape, spoon a small amount of rose paste.

11. Slowly close the dough over the paste, then roll it into a round tangyuan shape.

12. Boil the tangyuan until they float. Remove and serve in a bowl.

Chef’s notes:

1. To give the tangyuan a more romantic pink color, I used strawberry juice in the tangyuan. It not only gives the tangyuan a slight pink color but also adds that sweet, fragrant strawberry flavor.

2. By warming the strawberry juice before mixing it with the flour, the dough is more soft and also will be less likely to split open during the process of rolling the tangyuan. No need to boil the strawberry juice, just heat until warm.

3. When adding the honey to the rose paste I added a little more and the mixture was too watery, so I later added glutinous rice flour to the paste to make it easier to fill the tangyuan.

4. Don’t add too much filling, otherwise the tangyuan will easily leak.

5. If it is too difficult for you to create the tangyuan, just directly mix the rose paste and the dough together, roll into balls and then boil them. It’s also delicious!

Romantic Valentine’s Day Chocolate Tangyuan

Translated from this recipe, which includes photos to guide you.


400 grams glutinous rice flour
52 grams of Dove-brand chocolates
180 grams of non-gluten flour (such as rice flour)
Dragonfruit peels

1. Prepare the dragonfruit.

2. Remove the peel from the fruit, then slice the peel into thin strips.

3. Place the sliced dragonfruit peel into a blender and blend into a juice.

4. Using a filter to filter out the impurities, pour the juice into a bowl. Set aside.

5. Add the non-gluten flour to a new bowl, then pour in boiled water and quickly stir it together.

6. Add the glutinous rice flour.

7. Pour in the dragonfruit juice to the glutinous rice flour and mix together.

8. Even the mixture into a smooth round of dough.

9. Prepare the chocolate.

10. Pound the chocolate into small pieces.

11. Separate the dough into small pieces. Each piece should be moulded into a nest shape.

12. Add a chocolate piece/pieces in the center of the nest, and then fold the dough over and close it up into a round shape.

13. Repeat the process of nesting chocolate into the pieces of dough until all of the tangyuan are finished.

14. Place cold water in a pot and then boil the tangyuan. When the tangyuan float, they are ready to serve.

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.