(From New Straits Times (Malaysia))
Tang yuan, or glutinous rice balls, are a must for the Dong Zhi celebration which falls on December 21. Story by TAN BEE HONG.
ON TUESDAY, ALL CHINESE around the world celebrates Dong Zhi or the Winter Solstice Festival. Dong Zhi or Dong is the second most important date in the Chinese Calendar, after Chinese New Year, and is also the day of the longest night and shortest day, signaling the start of winter.
It is also the last festival of the Chinese calendar and falls six weeks before the Lunar New Year. Thus it usually falls sometime between December 21 and 23, just before Christmas.
In the past, Dong Zhi was celebrated as the start of the new year until the Han Dynasty when Emperor Han Wu Di (140BC) decreed that the 1st day of the Chinese Lunar Month would be celebrated as the Chinese New Year.
But till today, some Chinese, especially the elders, still insist that one is "a year older" after the Dong Zhi celebration, often to loud protests by the younger generations who want to hang on to their youth a little longer.
Originally a farmer's festival, Dong was a time when farmers put away their tools and returned home. Thus, families prepared a feast to welcome back fathers and sons who had been working hard to gather in the harvest, and they make offerings to the deities as a sort of Thanksgiving for a good harvest and pray for an even better year to come.
For this, chickens and pigs are slaughtered and the womenfolk made tang yuan, glutinous rice balls in sweet syrup.
Then the family puts on new clothes and sit around for the reunion feast, ending with a dessert of tang yuan (kuih ee).
Symbolic of sweet reunion, the roundness of the rice balls signifying a complete circle of harmony and unity within the family. Some families like to put crushed peanuts or sesame paste inside the tang yuan for better flavour.
Though not a public holiday in Malaysia, unlike Chinese New Year, Dong Zhi nevertheless is a significant festival amongst the Chinese community. In fact, most Chinese shops would close for the day, especially those which employ bluecollar workers like the construction and food industry.
Ever since I can remember, the night before Dong Zhi, mama would bring out big round trays and line them with muslin.
Then my sister and I would help her roll little pinches of glutinous rice flour into round balls of pink and snow white hues.
Mama kept a keen eye on us to make sure the little balls were of a regular size and round rather than cylindrical.
These were rolled twice between the palms to make sure they were firm and placed on the muslin to dry overnight.
Then mama would boil sugar in water with leaves and a slice of ginger to make a thick syrup which would be allowed to cool overnight in the refrigerator.
The next morning, she would boil the glutinous rice balls and add these to the chilled syrup. No one was allowed to leave the house without eating at least two of the tang yuan, accompanied by a reminder that we are now a year older and should behave better in the coming year.
One can find glutinous rice flour on sale in most wet markets a day or two before Dong Zhi. This morning would be a good time to grab some. You can usually find them in white, pink and green colours.