All those years, I had it all wrong about maqiu, a traditional winter solstice food for my husband Jun’s family in rural Zhejiang province.
Whenever Jun mentioned the sesame balls he had eaten for the holiday while growing up, I had always imagined a version of tangyuan, those delicious glutinous rice balls stuffed with sweet sesame or red bean paste typically enjoyed in southern China. Except, he called them sesame balls or maqiu, not tangyuan. So I thought, maybe maqiu was just another name for tangyuan in the local dialect?
But then years ago, one night before winter solstice with Jun’s family, I watched my mother-in-law prepare maqiu in her kitchen and did a double take. She dropped inch-sized balls of glutinous rice dough, made from glutinous rice flour and cold water, straight into a wok of boiling water without tucking anything inside. Had she lost her mind? Where was the muss and fuss of filling the dough with sesame paste that I’d had to slog through all those years before, when Jun and I used to live in the United States?
Once the rice balls floated to the top, which took only a few minutes, she fished them out of the boiling water and then rolled them in a sweet mixture of toasted black sesame seeds and white sugar that coated every inch of the dough. That’s when I realized it－it was my mistake, not hers.
The late afternoon sun of winter warmed us as we bowed before the front door of that little whitewashed house in the mountains of rural Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. There we prayed to the ancestors, whose table before us carried a delicious spread of home-cooked dishes from my mother-in-law’s kitchen. The tempting aromas of chili peppers, garlic and ginger mingled with the faint fragrance of papermade ancestor money burning on the ground. As I stood together with my husband and his relatives, I had this strange feeling of deja vu, as if I had been there before somehow, somewhere in my life.
And in a way, I had.
Before I married into a Chinese family from rural Hangzhou, I had never known anyone in the United States who celebrated the winter solstice as an actual holiday. But once I moved back to China with my husband in 2013, I finally had the opportunity to experience a traditional winter solstice celebration in all its splendor.
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.
“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!).
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!
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: Sugar 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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