Although eating glutinous rice dumplings is an ancient Lantern Festival tradition, these tang yuan (汤圆) snacks are keeping up with the times and healthy-eating trends. The recipe changes are controversial and a sweet vs salty "taste war" has broken out on the Internet.
While most people stick to traditional stuffings, including sesame, sweet red bean paste and pork, some producers are innovating with fillings, especially of frozen dumplings. Various fruits and green tea are being used as stuffings for the white rice balls.
Sanquan Food Co Ltd in central China's Henan Province, a major producer of frozen dumplings, has developed lower-calorie fillings.
Traditional dumplings, whether savory or sweet, are rich and high in calories, but many young people today are health-conscious and prefer a lighter, fresher taste, the company says. New tastes include green tea, low-sugar jam and fruits, such as strawberries, kiwifruits and pineapples.
The same thing has happened with mooncakes, the traditional snack of the Mid-Autumn Festival, but not all the new stuffings are low-calorie. Today mooncakes can be very elaborate and costly, filled with chocolate, ice cream, tiramisu, coffee, green tea, beef and precious herbs.
Tang yuan innovations, however, are not as extravagant. Some consumers embrace healthier dumplings.
"I don't like the traditional sesame tang yuan because it's so sweet that it makes my teeth ache," says Vanny Zhang, an office worker in Shanghai. "But I can accept the taste of green tea tang yuan. It's less sweet and the idea is quite fresh."
Other consumers called the new stuffings weird and said they don't taste like tang yuan anymore.
"Especially those fruit tang yuan, which are sour," says Ding Yu, a middle school teacher. "I think the meaning of eating tang yuan on the Lantern Festival is to wish for a sweet life for the family, but these are not even sweet."
Eating the new-fangled tang yuan is fine at other times of the year, he says, but traditional tang yuan are best for the Lantern Festival, or Yuanxiao Jie, which falls on Sunday this year.
But what is traditional flavor? Is it sweet, which is preferred in northern China, or savory and salty, which is preferred in the south? A "taste war" over sweet vs salty has broken out on the Internet.
Many people in the south argue that a bowl of savory, pork-stuffed tang yuan is one of the world's best treats.
Many people north of the Yangtze River prefer sweet stuffings for tang yuan, which they call yuan xiao (元宵). It should only be sweet, symbolizing sweetness in life, not savory or salty, which they call heretical.
In fact, the distinction in flavors can be traced back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
During the reign of the Emperor Kangxi, ba bao yuan xiao (八宝元宵), or eight-treasure glutinous dumplings, was a well-known royal snack. Since then, sweet stuffings became the standard for yuan xiao in northern China. These include sweet sesame, brown sugar, sweet red bean paste and sweet hawthorn.
Meanwhile, tang yuan in southern China developed into a multi-flavored snack. Pork, chicken, vegetables - and, of course, sweet stuffings - have all been used. Some more unusual versions, such as steamed pork with preserved vegetables, are also served these days.
In fact, different flavors are reflected by differently shaped tang yuan, says Chen Wei, head chef of Songhelou Restaurant, a master of tang yuan snacks.
The most traditional sesame-flavored tang yuan is usually round in shape, sweet bean paste tang yuan are oval, while salty and savory ones are round with a pinched point, Chen says. The system has been adopted by most restaurants, which boil the different flavored dumplings separately.
Although tang yuan is considered the special snack of the Lantern Festival, it actually came into existence around a thousand years after the festival itself.
Records show that it first appeared in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) and originated in Ningbo in east China's Zhejiang Province. The snack resembled today's "Ningbo tang yuan," which are glutinous rice flour dumplings stuffed with black sesame, sugar and lard.
At that time, tang yuan was called fu yuan zi (浮圆子), which means "floating balls." Later in northern China, the name was changed to yuan xiao during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
"The changes of tang yuan are quite complicated," says chef Chen. "While new flavors are being invented, some old types are gradually disappearing, such as brown sugar tang yuan that originated in Suzhou and deep-fried tang yuan in northern China."
Different types of tang yuan
Ningbo tang yuan
This is the most common type of glutinous rice dumpling in the Yangtze River Delta region. As with all tang yuan, the little balls are served in soup. The stuffing is a mixture of ground black sesame, sugar and lard. Ningbo people say that with a good dumpling, a little bite will push the stuffing out and the skin should be chewy without sticking to the teeth.
Hakka tang yuan
In Fujian Province on the southeastern coast, the filling of local tang yuan is actually one kernel of various nuts. The rice balls are boiled in syrup, not plain water.
Boiled tang yuan with sweet fermented glutinous rice
This dumpling, known as jiu niang yuan zi (酒酿圆子), originated in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province, and has become a home-style snack in the Yangtze River Delta region. It has no stuffing at all but is made with jiu niang, or sweet fermented glutinous rice, so it has the fragrance of wine. The dumplings are smaller than most, around 1 diameter.
Lei sha yuan (擂沙圆)
This "sand tang yuan," with stuffing of sesame mostly, is cooked by boiling and served dry. After being cooked, it's rolled in a powder or "sand" made of ground peanuts, sesame and soybeans. It can be eaten hot or cold and has been popular in Shanghai for more than 70 years.
Where to find tang yuan in Shanghai
Ningbo Dumplings 宁波汤团
Address: 112 Yuyuan Rd (near the Zigzag Bridge in Yuyuan Garden), Huangpu District
This is one of the most popular restaurants in the City God Temple area and serves authentic sesame, sugar and lard tang yuan in Ningbo style. Sweet osmanthus is added to the dumpling soup, adding a sweet taste and fragrance.
Address: 805 Nanjing Rd W., Jing'an District
The specialties are dumplings stuffed with crab and pork. The glutinous rice powder dough is also one of the best in the city, being stuffed by soft crab meat and pork, creating a delicate taste. The restaurant also sells raw dumplings.
Meixin Snacks 美新点心店
Address: 105 Shaanxi Rd N., Jing'an District
This unassuming snack bar has been operating for nearly 60 years. It serves tang yuan from September to May every year and only serves two flavors - sesame and pork. It closes around 1:30pm for a noon break until about 2pm, and does not stay open after 6pm.
Laojie Dumplings 老街汤团店
Address: 26 Nandajie St, Qibao Old Town, Minhang District
This is a small, crowded, must-visit dumpling bar. Several flavors are served, but sesame and pork at the most popular. Queues are always long.