Thursday, February 14, 2013

Pop Art sweet soup for the New Year

We're now partway through the fifteen-day long celebration that is Chinese New Year, and here is a dish that is welcome any time during this season, but especially on the Lantern Festival, which falls on Sunday the 24th this year.  

The New Year started on a new moon, and this long annual party will culminate on the first full moon, which is called Yuánxiāojĭe 元宵節. To welcome that bright, round moon, people eat balls made out of rice dough, such as the ones in today's recipe.

Sticky rice, also known as nuòmĭ or glutinous rice or sweet rice, is popular all over China. It is especially prominent in dishes from the southern coastal areas, where it has become a staple of many of the local cuisines. Outside of these areas, though, it mainly appears as a flour that is mixed with cool water to form a paste, and this is then either boiled, steamed, or fried. And despite the suggestion of its popular English name, “sweet rice flour,” nuòmĭfěn is bland. It is what you either add to or accompany the paste that turns this into a magical ingredient.

One of the most popular uses for glutinous rice flour is to form tāngyuán, the rice-dough balls that are beloved in so many parts of China and are also an integral part of both the Winter Solstice and Lunar New Year celebrations. Large or small, stuffed or plain, sweet or savory, deep-fried or boiled, I for one never can get enough of them.

The most unusual recipe for the tinier of these soup balls I've found, though, is this one from Jiangxi province. Because of the tangerines in the soup (they are a symbol of good luck because the character for tangerine –jú 橘 – sounds something like good fortune – jí ), this becomes an particularly auspicious dish for the New Year.

Knead the dough til soft
Unaccountably unknown outside of the southern province of Jiangxi, Rice Pearl and Tangerine Petal Soup is truly worthy of greater fame for many other reasons. For one, the canned mandarin segments that usually are consigned to the thankless duty of dressing up a Jello mold finally get to strut their stuff here. Both their brilliant orange hue and their slight tartness work as the perfect foils for the slightly sweet broth and the plain little rice pearls. To make this even more of a holiday dish, I've colored the rice flour with a bit of red food coloring, giving this dish a definite Pop Art flavor.

(This is lovely enough for Valentine's Day, too!)

Rice pearl and tangerine petal soup 
Júgēng tāngyuán 橘羹湯圓 
Serves 4 to 6

Rice pearls:
½ cup glutinous rice flour (mochi flour)
¼ cup cool filtered water
2 drops red food coloring, optional

Tangerines and soup:
2 cups filtered water
1 (11-ounce) can mandarin segments (including the juice)
2 to 3 tablespoons sugar or agave syrup

Make a long rope from the dough
1. First make the rice pearls by placing the rice flour in a medium mixing bowl. Make a small well on the side of the flour and pour the water there before adding the optional food coloring to the water. Use a silicone spatula to swirl the coloring into the water, and then mix this water into the flour to form a soft dough. Place the dough on a smooth surface and knead it briefly. Roll the dough out into a long rope about ½-inch thick and then break off or cut the rope into around 36 pieces. Roll each piece into a small ball. (These can be made ahead of time and frozen; see Tips.)

2. Bring the 2 cups water to a boil in a medium saucepan and then add the rice pearls in loose handfuls so that they do not stick together; stir after each addition to help separate the little balls. As soon as the water comes to a boil again and the pearls rise to the surface, add both the can of tangerine segments and its juice to the rice balls. Bring the pot to a boil once again and add sugar or agave syrup to taste. Serve immediately so that the rice pearls do not soften.

Roll the bits of dough into balls

I use Mochiko brand glutinous rice flour, but whatever brand you like is fine as long as it tastes fresh.

There are many different brands of canned mandarin (tangerine) segments out there; get one of good quality in a light syrup.

The rice pearls can be made ahead of time and frozen on a pan lined with plastic wrap. As soon as the rice pearls are hard, place them in a freezer bag and store for up to a couple of months. If the balls looked cracked or if the bag is full of ice crystals, discard and make a new batch.


  1. I love tangyuan although I prefer a savory version stuffed with ground pork and dried shrimp!

    1. Oh yeah. I love them any old way... deep fried are amazing, too.