Traditional Chinese Spring Festival Food
Since the Song Dynasty (960-1279), people have had the custom of dining on traditional fare highlighted by 'Yuanxiao' on the Lantern Festival which is also called Yuanxiao Festival. Yuanxiao is a kind of rice dumpling made of glutinous rice powder and wrapped with various fillings like bean paste, brown sugar and all kinds of fruits and nuts. People eat these on the last day of the Spring Festival, since they are also named 'tangyuan' or 'tuanyuan' among the Chinese folk, pronounced like 'tuanyuan' (reunion).
Besides entertainment and beautiful lanterns, another important part of the Lantern Festival or Yuan Xiao Festival is eating small dumpling balls made of glutinous rice flour. We call these balls Yuan Xiao or Tang Yuan. Obviously, they get the name from the festival itself. Made of sticky rice flour filled with sweet stuffing and round in shape, it symbolizes family unity, completeness and happiness.
The fillings inside the dumplings or Yuan Xiao are either sweet or salty. Sweet fillings are made of sugar, Walnuts, sesame, osmanthus flowers, rose petals, sweetened tangerine peel, bean paste, or jujube paste. A single ingredient or any combination can be used as the filling. The salty variety is filled with minced meat, vegetables or a mixture.
The way to make Yuan Xiao also varies between northern and southern China. The usual method followed in southern provinces is to shape the dough of rice flour into balls, make a hole, insert the filling, then close the hole and smooth out the dumpling by rolling it between your hands. In North China, sweet or non-meat stuffing is the usual ingredient. The fillings are pressed into hardened cores, dipped lightly in water and rolled in a flat basket containing dry glutinous rice flour. A layer of the flour sticks to the filling, which is then again dipped in water and rolled a second time in the rice flour. And so it goes, like rolling a snowball, until the dumpling is the desired size.