What is the difference between yuanxiao and tangyuan?

The differences between yuanxiaos and tangyuans actually lie in the different ways by which they are prepared

(Photo from Wikipedia)

(Photo from Wikipedia)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) – Traditionally, yuanxiaos (元宵) and tangyuans (湯圓) are served on the day of the Yuanxiao Festival (Lantern Festival) and the winter solstice, respectively. Aside from that, what are their differences?

The two traditional foods look alike, and the wrapping of both snacks is made of glutinous rice flour. However, the differences between yuanxiaos and tangyuans actually lie in the ways by which they are prepared.

In short, yuanxiaos are made by “rolling,” while tangyuans are made by “filling.” The stuffing of yuanxiaos is mostly made of a sweet paste, such as sesame, and the stuffing is cut into pieces, sometimes being molded by hand into round shapes. The pieces of the stuffing are placed into a container, preferably a sieve, filled with glutinous rice flour, and then they are rolled in the container to accumulate the glutinous rice flour on their outside.

After that, the pieces are taken from the container and put into fresh water for just a couple of seconds, after which they are scooped up to be rolled again in the container. The process is repeated about eight to ten times until the wrapping becomes thicker and rounder. At this point, they are ready for cooking.

Yuanxiaos (photo credit: Taichung City Government)

As a seasonal food served especially on the night of the Yuanxiao Festival (the 15th day of the 1st lunar month), the snack was conveniently named “yuanxiao.”

On the other hand, tangyuans are made by filling them with a stuffing made from sweet paste such as sesame, red bean, peanut, and green tea, or a salty paste made of meat.

Tangyuans (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The stuffing is placed inside wet wrappings made of glutinous rice flour, and molded to make the wrappings into round shapes.

Even though the wrappings of both yuanxiaos and tangyuans are made of glutinous rice flour, the two snacks taste quite differently, because the materials used to make their stuffing, and the ways of preparing the snacks, are considerably different. Generally speaking, yuanxiaos, which are shaped more irregularly, taste sweet and more chewy due to the sweet filling and the complexity in their preparation.

While tangyuans, which are smooth and round, can taste sweet or salty, depending on what went into the filling. Yuanxiaos can be cooked by steaming, boiling, or frying them, whereas tangyuans are more suited to being boiled. Therefore, tangyuans are usually served in soup.

As yuanxiaos are more complicated to make, they are only available in markets around the Yuanxiao Festival. However, nowadays, most people no longer pay attention to distinguishing yuanxiaos from tangyuans, and simply purchase frozen tangyuans to cook for both the Yuanxiao Festival and the winter solstice.

There are also the small and traditional white-and-pink tangyuans (mini glutinous rice balls), which are made of only glutinous rice flour and water without any stuffing. These traditional tangyuans can be served in sweet or salty soup.

When boiled, all these three snacks will sink at first. Yet, when they are about ready to be served, they will float on the water.

Traditional white and red small tangyuans (Photo credit: Flickr by yvonne85^_^)