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Chinese Traditional Festivals: Lantern Festival and Tang Yuan

Updated on February 10, 2017

Chinese Festivals

Today is Lantern Festival, a national holiday of sorts. As is the norm in China, this means the streets are crammed with people, like sardines in a can to use the common analogy, and the roads overloaded with oversized gas guzzling automobiles, driven only as a means to show off one’s acquired wealth.

In fact, I can hear some ‘new money’ individual uncompromisingly sounding his car horn now. This is a common insult in China, not of my creation.

Just the other day (although this is a common sight in China), a car, on the wrong side of the road ended up facing the inevitable dilemma. What? Of course, someone driving on the right side of the road couldn’t pass because of the aforementioned individual driving without care for the rules. Given one couldn’t possibly lose face (whether it be the driver in the wrong, or even for the guy following the rules to just reverse) both drivers proceeded to hold their horns down, creating an impasse.

I was in a hurry to work. Unfortunately, I didn’t witness who gave in.

I digress. Here is a video emphasising the chaotic nature of national holidays in China.

The Great Wall, China

As I mentioned above, today is Lantern Festival.

What is Lantern Festival?

Today is the fifteenth day of the lunisolar calendar. Any of you who live in a cosmopolitan city will know just two weeks ago was Chinese New Year, or the first day of the lunisolar calendar. Today, then, marks the end of the New Year Celebrations. What’s more, this is the first full moon of the lunisolar calendar.

How do Chinese celebrate this festival?

Historically, observing the full moon (difficult now given the smog), families would go outside with paper lanterns, likely with riddles written on them for people to enjoy solving. Today, however, Lantern Festival is simply an excuse to go shopping, take photos in front of copy-cat architecture or litter the man-made natural environment. I shouldn’t be so negative. Indeed, appreciating the festival from the comfort of one’s home is quite soothing.

To quote my partner – a native Chinese – ‘Lantern Festival, any festival, is OK if you stay at home with close friends and family away from all the bulls*** outside.’ I couldn’t agree more.

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If one doesn’t feel like walking around outside with paper lanterns, another way to celebrate this festival is to eat a food called tang yuan 汤圆. These pasty and gummy morsels are made from glutinous rice flour, formed using a minuscule amount of water. One must roll the flour and water in the hand to form a small ball. These are then cooked in boiling water. Some of the boiling water is also used to serve the sticky globes. While it is possible to make them at home, most people buy them. In fact, there’s a good deal on at the supermarket – buy one packet get one packet half price.

The tang yuan we purchased were from the supermarket. To cook, all you need to do is prepare boiling water then drop the balls in. Wait five to six minutes then service. I have heard you can buy larger ones, probably you’d need to extend the cooking time.

Tang yuan are often made with a filling. This can include peanut butter, sesame (kind of like tahini), brown sugar, white sugar, and an array of fruit jams. My personal favourite is peanut butter.

Last night we invited two of our friends to experience the gluey tang yuan with us. My partner, with a little inspiration from all the T.V. cooking shows we have been watching of late, decided we should add toppings to the tang yuan. He decided salty peanut chunks would work along with a somewhat sour addition, hawthorn. (Hawthorn is a tangy fruit from a little known bush – apparently it’s used to aid digestion here).

The Toppings (and Cookies)

Finally, we added the peanut and hawthorn toppings. Our two friends, having never tried the tang yuan before, were quite satisfied with our additions. Furthermore, they supported our choice of peanut butter filled tang yuan. Who wouldn’t?!

Cocktail

One addition to make anyone feel welcome - a cocktail. I used 1-part vodka, ½ part orange liquor and 1 part cherry juice. Served over ice. There is a cherry juice here, apparently imported from Taiwan, that has a marvellous flavour when mixed with the vodka and orange liquor. I include the below photo as guidance – if you can find it, try this cocktail, its super.

There you have it, Lantern Festival celebrated in a homely fashion. Do try the tang yuan if you ever come across them. I expect one could find them in the local Chinese supermarket, if your town has one. That said, I’m not sure whether they’d be on offer year round so perhaps now is the time to find out.

See you.

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