Monday, February 22, 2016

Filled rice balls for Lantern Festival

Spring has sprung: the end of the Chinese New Year is here, as today is the Lantern Festival. It should come as no surprise since we are discussing Chinese food that this is yet another reason to celebrate with something good to eat. 

A bowl of sweet filled rice balls is the perfect choice. It is something that my husband insists on having both for the Lantern Festival (Yuánxiāojiě 元宵節) that lands on the first full moon in the New Year, as well as for Winter Solstice. And I couldn’t agree more.

We’ve done plain rice balls before. Today it’s going to be filled ones. You can wrap all sorts of things in this lovely dough – sweet Jiangsu fillings or Hakka-style savory ground meat are the most popular – as it really is quite easy once you get the basics down.

From chunks to marbles
This version happens to be one of the best I know of, as it is very rich and creamy thanks to both butter and sesame oil. This kind of filling is called “flowing sand” (líushā 流沙), but I think of it more as lava: hot and liquid. But the secret to making this right the first time around is keeping the filling very, very cold. It hardens when it chills, thanks to all of that fat, and so it offers something firm for you to enclose in the soft dough. If you use a soft filling, it's easy for things to go south quickly, as it will easy mush up with the dough. So, chill that filling.

The recipe is not at all hard: first make the filling, and then the rice dough. Do this over a couple of days to make it less stressful, if you like, as practically each step can be seen as a logical pause in this production.

If you have some homemade fermented rice, so much the better, because nothing goes better with sweet filled rice balls than hot fermented rice soup, unless you add a poached egg or two, and then you have an amazing breakfast or late night snack.
Steps in wrapping these rice dough balls

To divide doughs like this into 48 pieces, use a ruler: just shape the dough into an even rope that is, say, 12 inches long and then cut each slice into pieces. Or, if you want to go metric, make it into a 48cm rope and cut it into 1 cm pieces. Easy peasy, either way.

(Please note that many non-American readers have asked that I start using metric measurements here. That makes a whole lot of sense no matter how you look at it, so I'm going to do my best to comply from now on.)

Sweet rice balls with black sesame filling
Hēizhīmá tāngyuán 黑芝麻湯圓
Makes 4 dozen rice balls

½ cup/150g raw black sesame seeds
6 tablespoons/90g salted butter, softened
½ cup/60g toasted sesame oil
⅓ cup/60g dark brown sugar

2 cups/320g sticky rice flour (nuomifen), plus more as needed
1 cup/240ml cool water

A mini processor is handy here
1. First make the filling. Lots of people use raw sesame seeds and lard or white shortening plus white sugar in here, but I go for the gold. I want this filling to be packed with flavor, so toast the sesame seeds. Do this by dry-frying them: place them in a cool wok and then toss them almost constantly over medium to medium-high heat until they pop and smell heavenly (about 5 minutes). Try a few of the seeds, and if they’ve lost their bitterness and taste toasty, scrape them into a medium work bowl and let them cool off completely, so that they don’t exude too much oil when you grind them.

2. Grind the sesame seeds in a spice grinder or mini food processor until they are reduced to a powder. Mix this with the softened butter, sesame oil, and sugar. (If you use a mini processor, you can add the butter, oil, and sugar to it, too, thus saving extra work.) This paste will be very soft, so refrigerate or freeze it until it is easy to work with.

3. Rinse your hands often in cool water to keep them from caking up as you divide the black paste into 48 pieces. Roll these into marbles that are more or less the same size, around ½ inch/1 cm in diameter. Place them on a plastic-lined pan and freeze them until they are relatively hard so that they are easy to handle when you wrap them in the rice dough. (This step can even be done days ahead of time; just freeze the hard balls in a resealable freezer bag or container; do not defrost them before proceeding to Step 6.)
The flour & water should form a firm dough

4. Set a pot on the stove and bring 4 cups/1l water to a boil while you prepare the dough. The best way to make resilient wrappers that don’t crack easily is to first make a plain rice dough out of the rice flour and water; knead this until smooth, and then remove about a quarter of the dough. Flatten the dough to form a disc, drop it into the boiling water, and then reduce the heat to low so that the water is just barely moving. Simmer the dough for a few minutes until it is cooked through and starts to float, about 5 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to remove the cooked dough and shake off all the water before you return it to the raw dough.

5. Knead these together on a smooth board lightly dusted with more rice flour. When the dough is smooth, divide it into 48 even pieces, and then roll these into balls. Again, moisten your hands as you work to prevent the dough from both sticking to your fingers and cracking. Keep the balls covered with a sheet of plastic whenever you are not working on them.

6. Shape one ball at a time by sticking your thumb into the rice ball to make a small cup, and then inserting one of the sesame marbles inside. Roll the ball between your hands. The filled rice ball is now finished. Cover it with plastic wrap and repeat with the rest of the dough and filling until you have 48 filled balls. You can immediately proceed to cook them or else freeze them in a single layer before freezing them in a resealable freezer bag.
Cook one piece of the rice dough
6. To cook these, bring a couple of cups of water to a full boil in a deep pot, as you will be adding more water as you cook the rice balls. Add as many of the filled rice balls (frozen or unfrozen) as you want, stir the pot gently to keep them from sticking, and when the water once again comes to a full boil, add a cup of cool water and bring the pot to a boil again. When the pot full of rice balls has come to a full boil three times, the rice balls should be floating. Use a slotted spoon to remove them to individual bowls. They can be covered with the water in which they were boiled, sweetened hot fermented rice soup, or even luscious sweet red bean soup. Eat immediately.


Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese black sesame seeds tend to be good quality: fresh, with no sand hiding in there. If you are unsure of what you have, pour small amounts of the sesame seeds out onto a white, rimmed plate and look at them closely. Taste a few of the raw seeds, as they should not be stale, either.
Cut the dough

White or unhulled sesame seeds will work fine here, too; they just won’t have that dramatic coloring is all.

For the rice flour, be sure it is sticky (aka sweet or glutinous) rice flour. Mochiko Sweet Rice Flour is dependable and easy to find.


  1. Sounds delicious. I was wondering what is the difference between filled rice balls and mochi?

    1. Great question! Mochi is made out of cooked mashed sticky rice. Nowadays sticky rice flour can be used, but basically the rice is somehow already steamed before it is formed into the mochi paste, which is then filled and rolled in either cooked cornstarch, rice flour, ground soybeans, or something similar.

      Tangyuan (filled rice balls) are either raw or partially raw (like here) dough that is filled and then cooked. The result is a completely different texture; plus, tangyuan are always served hot, while mochi are best at room temperature.

  2. There is a method of kneading cooked sago pearls into the glutinous flour dough. I think about 10-15 by weight, dry?

    Then you can cook the dumplings, chill them in the fridge overnight if you have leftovers, and then reheat the next day.

  3. my query on pt 6: why do we need to let the water come to a boil three times? isn't once good enough?
    thank you

    1. It's actually a very clever way to keep the outside of the rice balls from overcooking before the insides are completely heated through. This is the same principle for boiled jiaozi (dumplings). You can, of course, keep boiling the rice balls or jiaozi until they are cooked all the way through, but the texture of the wrappers suffers. Good question, though!