If you’ve never had tangyuan (which is also written as “tang yuan”) before, you might be forgiven for confusing them for frozen mochi. And to a certain extent, that’s what they are. Except they’re more compact and can be filled with things like ground peanuts with a bit of sugar, black sesame, or red bean paste – things that can take to being boiled without losing flavor or integrity.
Website editor Frank Ye tells Vice that tangyuan are an important part of the Lunar New Year feast because of what they represent. “In Chinese, the word ‘tang yuan’ literally translates to ‘soup rice balls’ and this phrase sounds a lot like the word for ‘reunion’, which represents that the family is complete,” Ye says. “In this day and age, it’s probably the only time of the year when family members can actually be together. So eating tang yuan is a way of reasserting ourselves the importance of family and being with family.”
Tangyuan is usually boiled as a dessert and served up in a sweet ginger soup (via Asian Inspirations). But some households are known to take tangyuan off the dessert menu and enjoy it as part of a savory soup instead. In this instance, the mochi-like balls are stuffed with meat, but what the dish stands for doesn’t change (via KQED).